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My piano is nearly 100 years old, and can no longer stay in tune. Repairing it would cost much more than the piano is worth, and I'm not ready to spring for a new one just yet. So for now I am stuck playing it. It's somewhat in tune with itself — within an octave is usually OK, spread two octaves and you'll notice a problem — but it's somewhere around 2.5 semitones lower than it should be.

I know that opera singers, for example, can damage their voices by singing out of tune. Is anything similar for the ear? Specifically, will constantly listening to this off-key piano as I play it harm my ability to recognize notes in tune or to play by ear? Is it long-term or can I easily recover? And what evidence is there to support this?

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    Opera singers damaging their voices by singing out of tune? Don't you mean to say they damage their reputation? – oberdada Jun 19 '13 at 23:09
  • @oberdada Nope. If you're wondering how/why, that might make for a good question. – Matthew Read Jun 19 '13 at 23:33
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An Anecdote:
This is totally anecdotal , but I have always liked to tune with a tuner and make sure that I was right at 440. After doing this for a year or so, I could usually feel if my group was higher or lower than 440, but it wouldn't bother after a minute of adjusting.

For me, I have always understood playing in tune as a sort triangulation between:

  • Relative pitch
  • A Weaker sense of of absolute pitch
  • Muscle Memory

Being consistent with correct pitches helps with the absolute pitch aspect of this "triangulation".

Practice Makes Permanent:
I have always regarded "practice makes perfect" as a load of malarkey. All practicing does is ingrain things and make you better at doing them. If you practice do something something wrong, you get better and more used to do it wrong. Therefore I would recommend that you can tune your piano.

But, still be flexible:
That being said, you can take this too far very easily. Another valued trait in a skilled musician is flexibility. So although I would say it is better for your ear to play on a tuned piano as much as possible, you don't want to go to the other extreme and be unwilling or afraid to practice on an instrument or situation that is not perfect.

Lastly, Pitch is learned:
In a sense, equal tempered tuning is "wrong" according to overtones. But to most western ears it sounds right. This is also true of some world music that uses alternate scales. So this might a source of evidence that playing something that is out of tune for extended periods of times (Say, at least a month) is probably not a good idea.

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    Perfect practice makes perfect permanance. – Michael May 3 '11 at 19:16
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People with perfect pitch often find out-of-tune notes very disturbing even when played alone. People with relative pitch don't, unless they're played played together with in-tune pitches.

I honestly don't understand why people with perfect pitch hate out of tune music, even when the intervals are correct. I don't have perfect pitch, and I'm glad I don't.

The exact pitch of a note doesn't matter, A 440 is just a choice people made to simplify tuning. There's a need for a standard tuning (for obvious reasons).

Given that A 440 is just an arbitrary choice (440 is not a magic number to our ears), I believe that perfect pitch would be extremely rare and inefficient if there were no standard tuning.

I think it's probable that people with perfect pitch can be negatively affected by always hearing out-of-tune music (especially if their ear is still developing), because the way they developed perfect pitch was through hearing the same exact pitches for an extended period of time (probably in their early childhood).

For people with relative pitch (who aren't trying to develop perfect pitch) tuning doesn't matter, and I shouldn't affect their aural skills at all. If the instrument is not in tune with itself, it's going to be unpleasant, but it's not going to affect your aural skills. In fact it might help you memorize the smaller intervals, and get better at tuning.

P.S. One of my friends is a guitarist who has perfect pitch, but he's not that good at it. It takes him a second or two to guess a note, and gets it right about 80-90% of the time. I used to test him by playing notes that he would try to guess. One time, I gave him a few notes and he was off a semitone on most of them. The reason, he said, was that he'd been playing his guitar without tuning it for a while and it slowly became a little flat, and his ear got used to it. My guitar, however, was in tune so the notes sounded a little sharp to him.

  • +1 for mentioning that 440 is arbitrary. It's a standard simply because it's easy to produce; older instruments were tuned to other tunings. – PixelArtDragon Jun 22 '13 at 4:03
  • I always get annoyed when people play a music that I know well and add in their own twists by changing the intervals in some parts of the song (and even with the original artist who played their song slightly differently in live and studio recording and I'm familiar with one but not the other), it just feels wrong, even when done deliberately. I'm sure people with perfect pitch experience similar thing with out of tune musics, probably worse, they sound different than expected and so everything sounds wrong, which is really annoying. – Lie Ryan May 20 '14 at 4:36
  • Having perfect pitch, I find out-of-tune notes disturbing because I am not used to them, and then, if they come from acoustic instruments or human voices, I often take them as a sign that someone didn't tune correctly. I tend to be more accepting of out-of-tune notes if the entire piece is pitch-shifted the same way or the piece is only mildly out of tune (e.g. I don't flip my lid when A432 music comes on, even though it sounds flatter). – Dekkadeci Oct 14 '17 at 16:23
  • I also find out-of-tune music to be disturbing when I transcribe it--it may sound OK when I listen to the original, but then my playback sounds like the notes may not be right. – Dekkadeci Oct 14 '17 at 16:27
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If you have any degree of perfect pitch, you may have to re-calibrate it when you get a better piano. But nothing will be damaged. Whatever gives you the impression opera singers can damage their voices by singing off pitch?

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Your brain has the ability to remember pitches. Obviously, some people can do this better than others. If you desire to recognize, or memorize pitches, then playing, or listening to music that is out of tune is counterproductive. If you are young, and serious about music, I would strongly discourage listening to, or playing music that is out of tune.

If you are interested in memorizing pitches, there is way to do this. Pick a note like C, or A. Learn what this note sounds like in all of the different keys, major and minor. Carry a tuning fork with you when you are away from your instrument and every time you think of it, see if you remember what the note sounds like. Use the tuning fork to check your memory against the tuning fork (or maybe a recording on your iPod).

When you hear music, on the radio, musak, whatever, car horns, 60 cycle hum (60 cycle hum is a Bb) learn how to identify that key or pitch relative to the pitch of your tuning fork. Make up little melodies that help you to relate the pitch on your tuning fork to all of the different major and minor keys. Learn how to sing these melodies using 'fixed do' solfeggi.'Fixed do' means concert pitch i.e. every solfeggi syllable corresponds to its proper pitch. 'Moveable do' uses the syllable 'do' to represent the tonic of any different key. Listen to your tuning fork while listening to music and listen to how the pitch of your tuning fork harmonizes with the music you are listening to i.e. how your tuning fork harmonizes against the various different keys, chords pitches and modes. As you feel confident, pick a different note and work on it using the same method. I bought a set of tuning forks, 13 forks. C,C#,D......up to C an octave above. I use only twelve syllables for solfeggi. I use the white key syllables; do(dough)re(ray)mi(me) fa(fah)so(so)la(law)ti(tee) do, and black key flat syllables; ra(rah)me(may)se(say)le(lay)te(tay). There are enharmonic sharp syllables as well. I find that using them creates confusion. It is better to always use the same syllable for the same pitch. In my opinion.

Some people think that you should work on a different pitch every week. I have been concentrating on a single pitch for maybe, a few months at a time. I have made definite progress. I can usually produce a C with my voice at any given time. Even if there is music in the background that is in a totally different key. With practice I tend to recognize different keys immediately.

If young children were encouraged to do this, they would develop absolute pitch.

There are articles about this if you are interested in learning more.

Be patient. You will make a lot of mistakes. But you can learn to do this. I got discouraged once and gave up. I was rummaging around in my bedroom and came across my C tuning fork. I immediately heard its pitch in my mind. It was like being slapped in the face. I checked, and was quite surprised that my memory of the pitch was spot on. In perfect tune.

Some people will say that this skill is not terribly valuable. It helped me to play in improvisational settings with other musicians. I can usually identify a key without having to play a note on my instrument. This a baby step toward developing what is commonly called 'perfect pitch', 'absolute pitch' or 'pitch memory'.

Sometimes I forget what a C sounds like. Just as sometimes I forget lots of things, like a person's name for example. That doesn't mean that I don't know the person's name, I have simply forgotten it momentarily.

I have noticed that when I play my guitar, I very often know what I am going to play, a D chord, for example, will sound like before I play it. In the past, my ear was not able to do as well as it can now that I have been paying attention to, and trying to remember what pitches sound like.

The conventional wisdom used to be that there are some people that have 'perfect pitch', but most people don't. This is not really true. 'Perfect pitch' is a function of memory. The human brain can learn to remember pitches. This is not an all or nothing issue. If you could not remember a pitch, you could not sing a song. The question is, "how long can you remember a pitch?" And can you remember it tomorrow? After I started trying, I noticed that most of time, I could sing a C perfectly in tune, first thing in the morning when I woke up.

  • Identifying the keys of pieces without playing(/singing) them is a form of perfect pitch. – Dekkadeci Oct 14 '17 at 16:30

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