I just came up with a question that I've never seen asked or talked about. It maybe obvious to everyone else in the world but I realized I simply can't answer it except with the non-answer.

This is the question:

What distinguishes a melodic line, such as a vocal line from being sung out of time vs being "in time" yet off the beat?

This is probably not clear so an example will do:

We know that there are many melodies that anticipate the chord by a fraction of a beat such as a 16th or even a 32nd note. Any score of the masters will have this happening. We don't consider these notes "off" or "wrong" or bad timing. Now suppose a singer is singing a line and "feels" some words are coming in sooner than one would normally expect from analysis(e.g., strong syllables in strong positions).

When I do this, sometimes it feels like my words are anticipating the beat, like the some melodic lines do and almost feels like a timing issue(but I'm not sing out of time, I do it repeatedly). Something like a vocal line with rhythm of a 16th's followed by two 8th notes when the accompaniment is in eights.

Some people may say that the lyric would be sung wrong because it is not landing in a strong way and may feel like a "double hit". (as if anticipating the beat accidentally by a 16th).

I can imagine many cases where this is done more or less. The question is, why does our brain allow some patterns that are "off" to sound right even when things don't line up(or maybe it's just wrong). Is it mainly due to repetition or is there some fundamental law about making the syllables line up in strong positions(which are created by the previous patterns, which kinda goes back to repetition), or something else?

I'm just curious is there is a sort of mathematical way that one can verify if a setting of a lyric is "good". I know there are "books" that people claim things, but those are not proof but just methods that people have used in the past. It seems we want the lyrics to be most intelligible, which instruments don't have that problem, and this creates a set of constraints(e.g., an easy line has to be loud enough to be heard).

So, alternatively, does anyone have any idea how to show(semi-scientific way taking into account acoustics, psychology, physiology, etc) convincingly why one lyric setting works with one accompaniment and one doesn't(I'm not talking about specific cases but general principles)?

(e.g., children's music should have simple more straight rhythms because it is easier for the child's brain to process simple regular patterns)

Or do we go with the non-answer and just say "If it sounds good!"?

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    I suspect that the problem sometimes has less to do with prosody than it does with melodic and harmonic function. If you anticipate an appoggiatura (using a tied anticipation), for instance, you are in some danger of vitiating the effect of the appoggiatura. The scansion of the verse is only one of the parameters that contribute to a vocal line's sense.
    – user16935
    Jan 19, 2016 at 4:48
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    I think you as the writer would need to determine what it syncopation versus what is "out of time". Generally, the idea is that if you can't express the idea with your current language of notation, then your idea needs another language of notation, thus, being "out of time". Alternatively, a melody may be sung arhythmically which means "no discernable rhythmic unit or cohesion" is present. If that's the case, then notation wouldn't really matter to begin with. As myself and others have said, you can't justify music with math. Serialism and combinatoriality was popular for a while, but no more Jan 19, 2016 at 5:37
  • It's not exactly related, though somewhat, but my answer to this question touches on whether or not something is perceived as a mistake. The question is in reference to odd meters but my answer speaks to the perception of mistakes a little. So I don't think it will give you the answer you are looking for but may provide a little insight. music.stackexchange.com/questions/14021/… Jan 20, 2016 at 18:12

5 Answers 5


Perhaps the main thing to consider here is expectations. If you lived in a world where all musical lines had note starts (or other 'events') that only fell on the strong beats, then a vocal line that behaved otherwise might - at least on first listening - seem out of time. We (or at least most of us) don't live in that world though - for example, there are many musical styles that have a rhythm section that carries the pulse clearly, and it is often the job of the vocal to live around the strong beats rather than directly on top of them. (Sometimes I find that when listening to an isolated vocal track, there's surprisingly little sense of the rhythmic feel of the full mix - it seems in those cases that the vocal is not responsible for carrying the main beat of the song). Starting a note a 16th before the downbeat (and continuing through to create a syncopated effect) is common in pop music these days, so most people will have had exposure to it - including children, who (in my experience) often now seem quite rhythmically sophisticated from a young age.

Of course some styles and some songs set up their own expectations; with a song or style that is usually sung 'straight', it might be jarring to hear syncopation; on the other hand, if it is done consistently, the listener may then come round to hearing it as a 'funked-up' version of the original.

This is also true for delivery that doesn't even seem to fall on a regular musical off-beat like a 16th. From the mid to late 90s, it become common for rap artists to deliver flows that were in some places closer to natural speech patterns than musical rhythms, in places approximated three-over-two or syncopated figures, and in other places were dead on the beat. I remember that this initially seemed sloppy and out of time to me; after some more exposure I began to get used to it, to the point where strictly on-the-beat delivery could sound a little dated or naïve.

Just as an unusual chord choice might initially be heard by some listeners as off-key but appreciated by others as an interesting 'flavour', it's hard to make general rules. It's always worth considering that our auditory system evolved as a survival mechanism; it is designed to alert us to sounds that 'don't fit the pattern', telling us that something new is happening. But it can also learn; once an unfamiliar event has been repeated, it becomes a new pattern that has been learned (and is, therefore, less disturbing). There are lots of jokes along the lines of 'If you play a wrong note, do it five more times and they'll think you're a genius' - funny 'cos it's true, and it comes down to setting up expectations!

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    Plus 1 for even attempting to answer. Kudos for a great answer! I like the (what I will label as) "adaptive expectation" theory as it relates to the way our brains are wired for survival. I imagine a similar concept can be observed in Whitetail Deer who adapt to an Urban environment out of necessity when their habitat is replaced by development. The sounds they hear such as honking horns would be frightening in their native habitat but the urban deer eventually get used to it and it does not register as a warning sound anymore. Jan 19, 2016 at 18:38

"[...] why does our brain allow some patterns that are "off" to sound right even when things don't line up [...]"

Probably what you are talking about is tied with what is called the Precedence Effect.

It is, very basically, where two identical sounds that arrive with a small delay are perceived as a single sound, and beyond a certain breakpoint they are perceived as e.g. an echo.

The simpler the sound and the environment, the smaller the time delay needs to be, but for music, I have seen it quoted as high as 80 or 100ms, which is a long time.

I know that for my computer guitar sim software, the delay between plucking a string and hearing that note needs to at or below about 12ms for me to not perceive it.

As for why this is, it is a feature or bug of binaural hearing and positional echolocation which are evolutionary imperatives: how not to get eaten or trampled.

A thought here is that the precedence effect is leveraged in sound engineering when creating the stereo field in recordings. Wouldn't it be interesting if a 17th century composer was manipulating the stereo field?

  • A very interesting answer. One thing that I've heard regarding the perception of two notes that are not played at the exact same time, is that the human brain, at least for the average person, is capable of hearing to distinct sounds if they are more than 30ms apart. I learned this while reading up on delay effects and it was suggested that a delay less than 30ms will ultimately sound like one occurrence, acting more like a reverb if the feedback is high enough. If they are panned to opposite channels, this effect can make the sound seem to spread between them, making it more present. Jan 20, 2016 at 18:17

One way the underlying pulse remains constant, the other way it is broken. It's the difference between singing 'around the beat' and there not being a steady beat at all - or the vocal becoming disconnected from it.

But there's no clear cut-off point. We can easily define being completely on the beat and being completely oblivious to it. But between the two extremes, there's a whole grey area of rubato, tempo flexibility, syncopations, anticipations and delays... I think the test must be whether you feel the singer knows and cares where the beat is. And this may be a subjective thing.


I think the answer you are searching for is that whatever you do, you have to do it deliberately and with confidence. People don’t make mistakes deliberately and with confidence.

If you listen to some Frank Sinatra while reading the score, you’ll notice he is all over the place, and typically, he is very much behind the musicians. But he is singing with total confidence. That implies that he is deliberately behind, not accidentally behind by mistake. The audience receives an unconscious message that he is laid back and cool. Maybe singing with a glass of bourbon in one hand. Which might actually have been the case.

A lot of the best improvisations are the result of the performer doing something which they later tell you was a mistake, but they went with it, expanded on it, developed the mistake into an idea, and the listener doesn’t hear it as a mistake.

You can carry this over to public speaking. If one speaker says a bunch of stupid stuff with deliberate confidence, and another says really smart stuff with a bunch of uhs and hmms and hemming and hawing and shuffling around, it is the latter speaker that will be thought to have made mistakes. That is why I don’t think the answer to your question is solely about music theory. It’s more about sociology — the human interactions that we’re not consciously aware of.


One factor is the use of stressed and unstressed syllables in lyrics. When a piece's rhythm and/or melodic structure 'goes against the grain' and puts emphasis in unusual places, it's immediately noticeable, for good or for bad. I imagine that more naturalistic settings (speech-like phrasing and emphasis) would be more adaptable to a wider range of styles and accompaniments because our brains can make sense of them more easily; there's less to process if the lyrics immediately register as words.

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