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Can anyone explain to me what's going on?:

I am not and have never been a professional classical musician, but I don't think you need to be one to see that something is definitely wrong here — starting from the very intro by cello and then throughout the whole piece. And I am more than assured that performers themselves realize that. And that's what puzzles me greatly. They, nevertheless, perform it as if it were exactly the way it is supposed to be. And it doesn't seem to be any kind of joke on their part either.

Is there any more or less reasonable explanation to this? This act reminded me of my first experience of having one kind of French cheese. It smelled like nothing less than a piece of well-rotten remains of a corpse. However, before I was ready to vomit, one good person explained to me that that was a special French delicacy and was, in fact, good for health. Well, while I was still doubtful about how it was good for health, at least I got some explanation.

So, is there any similar plausible explanation for this case?

EDIT [2023.03.15]: Here is a similar case:

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    It’s a high school orchestra - it’s not intentional. Proper intonation is very difficult and takes years to develop. This is being performed by older children - teenagers. Unless they were very dedicated to practicing, they have not had enough time to learn to play better than this. Commented Feb 3, 2023 at 3:04
  • @ToddWilcox - Aaaah. I see now. Thank you!
    – brilliant
    Commented Feb 3, 2023 at 3:35
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    …& at a guess, only one or two of those will keep it up long enough to ever get good at it. Musicianship has a natural wastage, with a high early discard-rate.
    – Tetsujin
    Commented Feb 3, 2023 at 18:55

6 Answers 6

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The other answers have given lots of reasons why classical musicians might go off pitch. But in this case, most of the issue is simply as Todd Wilcox and Tim wrote: the orchester is inexperienced, they didn't mean to play out of tune, still it happened.
But I would say a bit more about that, more as an apology on behalf of these musicians than anything.

First: specifically for the cello introduction but also the rest
– Well, to begin, this is a high school student who has perhaps never played in front of an audience of the size they were facing here. And then she has to begin this piece all alone, with literally every eyeball in the room upon her. Easy to see how that can affects one's performance. (Maybe not so much for the kind of personality who plays lead guitar in a metal band, but orchestra musicians tend to fall a bit more on the shy side.) Even nerves aside – string instruments are tricky enough to play accurate under the best of conditions, but when you've just taken your seat, maybe the position isn't quite right, maybe there's something wrong with the chair, etc. etc..

Professional musicians have the experience from hundreds of public performances to guide them through such adversities, and even they get it wrong sometimes, and/or they're hyper-sensitive about the temperature backstage and whatnot because they know the dangers.
(Well, and there's also musicians who are super-relaxed badasses that just step on stage and kill it every time, but it's a big skill.)

Second, intonation isn't everything.
We're living in a world where so much music is hyper-corrected. Leaving aside the question of whether the predominant 12-edo tuning is even a good ideal – often other aspects of a performance are far more important than ideal pitch. This piece is a rock song. For sure an unusual one and in a different arrangement, but it doesn't change the fact that it's much more about powerful expression and rhythmic energy, than about clean intonation. And that's frankly something many orchestras totally suck at, even professional ones. MHS is doing a pretty good job at it I have to say, at least until about 2:30 where the tempo starts dragging a bit (probably bow arms getting tired). Even in the melody, there's a lot of simply anger and desperation. This can involve phrasing, effects like portamento (sliding/bending into- or out of notes), but also simply a certain not-giving-a-damn about intonation.

In summary: these musicians did the best job that could realistically be expected from them in the situation.

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  • Thank you. I should've seen from the outset that they were just kids. I had been watching a lot of professional symphonic orchestral music videos earlier that morning and got carried away into not noticing that obvious fact when this vid popped up in my recommendations.
    – brilliant
    Commented Feb 4, 2023 at 6:24
  • This should be the accepted answer, it nails it.
    – Tim
    Commented Feb 4, 2023 at 10:49
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While the linked video is explained as an amateur (high school) orchestra in which the musicians haven't fully developed their intonation, there are situations in which classical musicians play deliberately out of tune. (Of course, since they typically do this at the composer's instruction, one could say they really aren't out of tune at all.)

Microtonality

The prime examples of "out-of-tuneness" would be those in the realm of microtonal music. Microtonality broadly refers to contemporary music (and sometimes music from non-Western cultures) that is composed outside the accustomed equal-tempered scale.

One example: Krzysztof Penderecki's Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima. In this piece, the instruments are, by intention, out of tune with each other.

Detuning to achieve a specific pitch

Traditionally, the lowest pitch on a string bass is E, but there are scores that require an Eb. To do this, the bass player retunes the E string to Eb. Technically, the string is now "out of tune", but also plays an accurately tuned Eb.

See How do you play a low Eb on a double bass?

Peg scordatura

Sometimes a composer will ask a string player to "detune" their instrument for some passage of music.

For more on this, plus some examples of other "detuned" instrument and pieces of music that employ the technique, see Are there pieces that require retuning an instrument mid-performance?

Toy instruments

Some composers or ensembles work with toy instruments which are (more or less) inherently out of tune. One example, John Cage's Suite for Toy Piano.

"Correcting" for equal temperament

The compromise that equal temperament makes (12-TET, specifically) is that most intervals are "out of tune" in comparison to their more sonorous "just" relationships. When I sang in unaccompanied choirs, the voice with the chordal third would often adjust their pitch up or down, depending on the needs of the chord. Similarly with fifths. String, brass, and woodwind ensembles will do this as well. (Basically, as long as there's no piano. ;-))

One post that discusses this is Making part of a triad chord sharper, but is it counted as minor?

Temperaments

There is a strong case to be made that the only "in tune" scenarios are those adhering to "just" intonation, meaning that intervals are integer ratios of frequencies. A "temperament" is a tuning in which those ratios are adjusted — "tempered" — to achieve some musical purpose. For example, 12-tone equal temperament — the adjustment of intervals such that 12 equal-sized semitones divide each octave — allows for the practical use of 12 different keys, but only by making most intervals slightly out of tune in comparison to their just ideals.

In this way, one could say that all classical musicians — pianists especially — play out of tune as a matter of course. (But, then, is it really out of tune...?)

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  • You left out sonority achieved by flattening thirds and slightly sharpening fifths. Assuming not playing equal tempered counts as “out of tune”. Commented Feb 3, 2023 at 5:55
  • @ToddWilcox I'm not certain I follow. You're thinking in terms of just intonation? I intentionally left it out (or, rather, thought of it as included in microtonality) so as not to start a debate over whether j.i. was in or out of tune.
    – Aaron
    Commented Feb 3, 2023 at 6:27
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    @ToddWilcox Oh, maybe I understand. You're thinking of spontaneous adjustments to "correct" for equal temperament and give better sonorities for chords and intervals?
    – Aaron
    Commented Feb 3, 2023 at 6:31
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    @ToddWilcox equal temperament is often described as "everything being a little bit of of tune." In fact, this is true of every temperament. By that standard, almost everyone plays deliberately out of tune except for those using just intonation -- but pure just intonation is almost impossible to achieve in practice, and it frequently results in pieces finishing at a different frequency from where they started, so it is also out of tune by a different measure.
    – phoog
    Commented Feb 3, 2023 at 6:47
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    @Aaron Hehe, I'd argue that's a pianist's perspective! Most stringed instruments, even fretted, can alter the pitch, and most wind instruments can through breath control, and obv unfretted instruments and human voice can it all. (Even clavichord!) I'd argue that, for these, intentional alteration for expressive purposes—not just temperament or harmonic reasons like leading tone—have been around forever. In fact, vibrato is kind of part of this conversation... Commented Feb 3, 2023 at 16:13
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All that, with no conductor in sight!

I'd put it down to possibly not enough rehearsal time, or an inexperienced orchestra. There's always this sort of intonation/tuning problem with either. Playing in tune with other strings takes years to get right - playing one string instrument by itself in tune is enough of a challenge, and they did really well with a challenging piece.

It's true that choirs and string orchestras sometimes do move slightly 'off key', particularly the more amateur choirs, when there's no reference point like a piano to follow, but the better ones will all tend to move all together, rather like tempo changes with no conductor to keep time. But your 'off key' I guess is meant for 'out of tune with each other' - something subtly different.

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Aside from what Aaron already said(which is all correct), there is a certain practice that some people frown upon, but many others think it's fine. In instruments that can manipulate their intonation on the spot, like the violin, a soloist might sharpen or flatten tendency tones to create stronger tension/desire to the resolution. For example, a leading tone can be slightly sharpened, and a subdominant can be slightly flattened if it goes to the mediant. This only works for tones that resolve by semitone, and only in a solo or small chamber context, as an orchestral context would create a dissonant clash between the person doing this and the rest of the section.

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    Regarding the very last sentence in your answer, can you, please, take some time to elaborate on why that would work in chamber, but not in orchestra?
    – brilliant
    Commented Feb 3, 2023 at 7:27
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    @brilliant if only one out of a whole section of sixteen first violinists changed the pitch they were playing... it would not sound good
    – AakashM
    Commented Feb 3, 2023 at 10:00
  • @AakashM - I was thinking, in fact, totally the opposite - if one out of a section of sixteen goes slightly out of pitch, it won't be noticeable - just like, say, it is not that noticeable when suddenly one of them stops playing in order to turn the score page.
    – brilliant
    Commented Feb 3, 2023 at 11:26
  • @brilliant A slightly different pitch is very different from dropping out. Try this online tone generator. The On Off buttons control 4 "violins" at 440 Hz and one at 442 Hz. Note the difference between dropping out one of the 440s, and dropping in/out the 442.
    – AakashM
    Commented Feb 3, 2023 at 12:04
  • @AakashM - I see. Thank you.
    – brilliant
    Commented Feb 3, 2023 at 13:57
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Another example of deliberately playing out of tune I'd like to bring to the table is perhaps one of the most stunning pieces on the classical guitar: Nikita Koshkin's Usher Waltz. This piece was inspired by the novel The Fall of the House of Usher, and the composer deliberately wrote out of tune passages to showcase the absurdity that the story has fallen into. Here is an example performance, and the out-of-tune "Bartok pizzacatos" start at 3:50:

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    Thanks for introducing me to this piece. Really cool. On the same subject, here's a film version of "Usher", with an improvised organ accompaniment: The Fall of the House of Usher
    – Aaron
    Commented Feb 6, 2023 at 3:44
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Yes it is a thing. If you go into modern practice of old music (baroque and prior) it is quite common to see intentional out-of-tuneness for effect. And even more that that slight shifts from intonation can influence the character of a piece and are thus rather common. But in this case this is simply because these are not fully trained classical musicians, this is a high school orchestra.

This is the actual recording of the string quartet this arrangement came from:

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