I'm not very musical (took piano for a year, when I was a kid, was pretty bad at it), so maybe I'm completely wrong about this, but I feel like much of modern music is being sung off-key.

As a concrete example, compare this: Lady Gaga, Ariana Grande - Rain On Me to this: Pat Boone -- Ain't That a Shame. I'm not trying to pick on any particular modern singer. I feel like this bad singing is everywhere these days (For the record, Pat Boone's popularity predates my youth by a few decades)

So my question to you (music professionals, presumably) is: Are modern songs performed off-key intentionally (to be more relatable to the target audience or whatnot), or am I imagining it?

  • 3
    I don't hear "Rain on Me" as being off key; just a different style of music and singing. Is there a specific part of the song you have in mind? Maybe you could add a time code to the link (link&t=XmYs).
    – Aaron
    Sep 16 '20 at 22:44
  • I've heard that a lot of musicians just tune their instruments, and therefore base the vocals, on whatever the in-studio piano is tuned to. Sometimes it's A440, often times it's not. (As it is rather difficult, time-consuming, and expensive to tune a piano, it isn't done often) Sep 17 '20 at 0:56
  • I doubt if Lady Gaga and Ariana Grande would use a place that can't afford piano-tuners. Sep 18 '20 at 13:47
  • You'd be hard pressed to come up with a solid definition of what it means to be "on key" or "off key". As long as there has been singing, there has been different aesthetics for pitch and what pitches are preferred by singers and listeners for different contexts. You don't need to listen to more than the first four lines of "Ain't That A Shame" to hear notes that are not "on key" (in a traditional sense), but they are off key on purpose in a way that fits the song and is pleasing to many people. Oct 13 '20 at 7:10
  • 1
    Ironically, the singing in "Rain On Me" is more on-key than in "Ain't That A Shame" because the former has been subjected to auto-tune. You probably prefer the "Shame" vocals because they are off-key in a pleasing way, and you might be finding the near "perfection" of the auto-tuned vocals in "Rain On Me" to be less pleasing. Oct 13 '20 at 7:13

Certainly performers might intentionally and legitimately use any variation or inflection in tuning, timbre, or (when singing) accent to purposely achieve a certain feel or effect; producers and promoters might also choose to put forward performers who have natural tendencies in those areas. So I think the answer to your question in the spirit in which it's asked may be 'yes'. However, the fact that these variations are such an important part of music, added to the fact that there is no definitive 'correct' tuning system, does mean that there's no objective definition of what exactly would constitute singing 'off-key'.

I feel like this bad singing is everywhere these days

If it's everywhere, finding an audience as presumably intended, maybe you have to take a look at the logic by which you judge it 'bad'?

(I also can't immediately hear what you're judging as off-key in rain on me; pop music in that style is sometimes criticised for being auto-tuned to the point that it's a little too on-key!)

  • I don't feel like this directly addresses the question. The first paragraph applies to all music not just modern music as the OP asked. Temperaments, ornaments, and articulations that may seem to drift off from a defined pitch influence all performers on instruments that don't have fixed pitches like the voice. The second half of your answer is why I've closed it until the OP can clarify. We should not try to guess what the OP is trying to convey with off-key as it does not seem to be a typical definition.
    – Dom
    Sep 16 '20 at 23:55
  • @Dom I had modern music in mind when writing the first paragraph, but if something applies to all music, I suppose it applies to modern music! Yes, it would be interesting if OP could point out a clearer example.
    – topo morto
    Sep 17 '20 at 0:27
  • True, but how the OP is phrasing the question it seems like they are looking to elements that exist in modern music, but not all music hence the first comment.
    – Dom
    Sep 17 '20 at 0:44
  • More traditional singers probably used the bel canto style, which isn't very fashionable these days. This could be the reason. Sep 17 '20 at 5:27
  • @No'amNewman yes, that would probably be the start of a good answer. Interestingly, bel canto to my ears often includes use of portamento and rubato, which could be seen as off-key-ness...
    – topo morto
    Sep 17 '20 at 8:42

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