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If a song is in C3, and I sing in C2, is it considered out of tune, or is it OK but not preferred?

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  • The only case in which I could imagine it to be noteworthy to change the register of a song would be if it were closely associated with a certain voice type; if a bass decided to sing the "Queen of the Night" aria it would be eyebrow-raising (though not necessarily a bad idea). But if your motivation is, "As notated, this song is out of my vocal range," going an entire octave lower might be too low. Consider transposing by other amounts by changing the key. Sep 6, 2021 at 15:03
  • One other factor is low-interval clashes -- if there are other harmonic elements in the lower range, the result can sound "muddy" due to too many close harmonics (see music.stackexchange.com/questions/77173/lower-interval-limits). Sep 7, 2021 at 17:46

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You won't be singing in C3 or C2, as those are specific notes. What you mean is singing a tune an octave lower, or even higher, than where it's written, or normally sung.

No, it's not out of tune, as the notes you sing will be the same name notes as original, just in a different octave. If you listen to people in a crowd singing 'in unison', usually the females will sing an octave (sometimes two) above the notes the males sing. Happy Birthday is a simple example.They're not out of tune with each other, otherwise it would sound awful (sometimes does!), and actually it's something that happens all the time. Obviously, if you want your rendition to sound like the original, it'll need singing at the same pitch as that original.

EDIT: with children's choirs in the past, I've always sung an octave lower than the kids did, while demonstrating. None of them tried singing in their boots to copy me...

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  • Though I have had that issue when doing some ear training work with very young children. I find, if kids have already had a few years of general music class or other activities, they've already internalized the concepts of relative distance in pitch-space and of octave equivalency, but sometimes with kids around Kindergarten age I've had better luck singing falsetto in their octave to lay the foundations of pitch-matching. (Though sometimes that backfires and they try to jump into Chipmunk Mode!) Sep 6, 2021 at 15:06
  • @AndyBonner - the schools director of music in B'ham (where I worked) always insisted on singing falsetto himself with choirs - and sounded pretty silly doing so. Never tried it, but pride probably stopped me. My plan worked for 5yo+.
    – Tim
    Sep 6, 2021 at 15:36
  • Clearly, by "singing in C3", they mean "singing with C3 as the tonic note". Sep 7, 2021 at 15:13
  • @Acccumulation - maybe clear to you - why? - but not clear to me.
    – Tim
    Sep 7, 2021 at 15:15
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    Fun (unverified) fact I read somewhere on the internet: the ability to recognize the same note in different octaves as "the same" is uncommon among animals. Birds for example can learn a song, but play the same song an octave higher or lower and it's like learning an entirely new song for them.
    – Phil Frost
    Sep 7, 2021 at 18:40
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It's worth pointing out that in Western traditions in both speech and singing, for "unison" singing it is the rule rather than the exception that male singers are singing an octave lower than female singers. Since there is a significant difference in formant use motivated both by typical differences in mouth size as well as vocalisation patterns emphasising that difference, practised female singers tend to get more thrown off by males singing at their pitch rather than an octave lower.

It's probably part of the magic of Baroque castrati that has been rejuvenated to some lesser degree by countertenor singing.

Spoiler: I have been singing as male alto in mixed choirs.

With regard to "considered out of tune or OK but not preferred": it's not out of tune. Due to the different use of formants, it may work better for a male transposing a female part downwards than for other combinations, but it will depend on the piece in question how much the tonal balance may get shifted to its advantage or detriment. As an extreme, a duet between equal ranges (stuff that would in an orchestral context be assigned to soloists with the same instrument) will likely suffer most when one part goes down one octave.

Also solo voices often stand out by having their higher harmonics float somewhat above the instrumental backdrop, and this kind of orchestration design of a piece may be foiled by such a change.

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It's not out of tune if you sing it an octave lower accurately. Another term for out of tune is out of key. And, obviously, an octave lower is still the same key. And, in fact, is still the same notes.

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  • Short and simple. I like this.
    – user45266
    Sep 8, 2021 at 6:27
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"Out of tune" generally refers to having the wrong note compared to some reference note. A single singer can't be "out of tune", as long as they're consistent about what key they're singing in. Someone with perfect pitch would notice if a song is written in C and you sing it in C#, and it might feel "off" to them, but "out of tune" wouldn't be quite the right term for it. To be "out of tune", you would have to either sing different notes in different keys, or be singing with another singer or a musical instrument that is in a different key.

The "out of tune" effect comes from notes having a dissonant interval. The octave is the least dissonant interval, but there are other intervals with low dissonance, such a perfect fifth. So if one person is singing the song in the key of C3, and another is singing in the key of G3, that will probably still sound good (although it depends on the song). The most dissonant intervals tend to be smaller intervals; often when two singers are "out of tune", the interval between their notes is less than a half step.

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It's not strictly speaking "out of tune", but if the notes are written down and sung in an unintended octave it's definitely still a "wrong note" as far as the composer (and/or likely the choir conductor, other singers in the section, etc.) would be concerned.

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