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As everyone knows, our own voice sounds different to ourselves. My question is if there is an actual pitch difference and if so, how much it is?

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    Think that through for a minute... if it were possible, you'd sing out of tune all the time...
    – Tetsujin
    Commented Sep 24, 2017 at 19:11
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    I actually think this is a good question. I find it very helpful to have monitors feeding my own voice back at me loud enough to drown out the bone conduction, which does seem to be a bit misleading in terms of pitch. Commented Sep 24, 2017 at 19:28
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    Unlike Todd, I know that for me when I sing, and pitching harmony against others, I perceive nothing that makes me have to adjust my vocal line or pitch. Monitors (which I can happily live without) appear to make no difference to perceived pitch. Which maybe says that that answer here is no... Or yes! Thus is subjective singer to singer.
    – Tim
    Commented Sep 25, 2017 at 6:38
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    This is a dupe, but danged if I can find the other. Commented Sep 25, 2017 at 11:09

3 Answers 3

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There is a preliminary question hidden here which is, "Does the timbre of a sound affect the apparent pitch of that sound?" The answer is yes. It took about 30 seconds to find a study that had this finding here (note this paper references at least one additional study showing a link between timbre and perceived pitch):

The conclusion drawn from the study is that timbre-induced pitch shifts may attain magnitudes that are likely to lead to conflicts between subjective and fundamental-frequency-based pitch assessments.

I have a slight objection to the choice of words in that quote, since my understanding and preference is that the word "pitch" always refers to a subjective sensation, that is largely based on the frequency spectrum of a sound, and not entirely on the lowest frequency.

In any case, timbre does affect pitch, and as you note, a significant portion of what we normally hear of our own singing voice has reached our hearing apparatus via very different path from any other listeners, so we experience a different timbre of our own voice from the audience.

This could affect our sense of our own singing pitch. My personal experience as a singer is that it does affect my own sense of the pitch of my voice, but only very slightly.

Since everyone's vocal and hearing apparata and intermediary tissue and bone are unique to them, we can't expect that everyone will experience any pitch "deception" (if you will) regarding their own voice, and if they do, we should expect the amount to vary from person to person. In any case, we should expect it to be very slight. As commenters have noted, people are able to sing in tune, so any "pitch deception" must be either too small to be noticeable or not so great that it is hard to learn to compensate for it rather quickly.

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    I'm not convinced that this is relevant to musical performance. Even accepting the results of that study – which I find dubious in a couple of details – it only investigated how the relative pitch between two sound played seperately in sequence is perceived. But fine-intonation in music is mainly about matching your pitch to other simultaneous sounding voices, and that brings interference effects into the game (beat etc.) in a crucial manner. These effects don't depend on the relative amplitudes, only on the frequencies of the partials. Commented Sep 24, 2017 at 22:49
  • @leftaroundabout I think one thing you're talking about is matching beat frequencies, which is not related to timbre (at least when matching fundamental frequencies). I've never been a professional singer but I've sung a lot and beat frequencies helped me learn to sing, but they only make up a very small part of my pitch sense when I'm singing with an ensemble. I use "pitch" to mean a subjective sensation of note, and as such the subjective perception of the pitch of a note is affected by timbre and is (IME) crucial for singing on key. Commented Sep 25, 2017 at 0:15
  • I'm really trying to get an understanding of this concept, still believing that timbre and pitch are two separate things - my idea! Are you in fact saying that for example, someone hears a note sung by someone else, and possibly that note is construed as a slightly different pitch to its actual. And when the listener sings the same note, it will also appear to be out by the same to that listener, now a singer, so in fact, it will match up anyway? The OP asks what sort of pitch difference. I guess it's extremely small, and would maybe be imperceptible to a listener anyway - purely a guess.
    – Tim
    Commented Sep 26, 2017 at 15:18
  • Note that the difference in perceived pitch between an operatic tenor and a viola was (in some case) 15 to 20 cents, where 100 cents is a semitone, i.e. about a seventh to a fifth of a semitone. Since the questioner asked specifically about the magnitude, it may be worth mentioning this in your answer. Would being off by this much be perceived as out of tune / lending character / a different temperament / … ?
    – PJTraill
    Commented Sep 28, 2017 at 21:14
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I think the downvotes to @Tim's answer are rather unfair. And @Todd Wilcox has taken a study that states 'something MAY happen' and escalated it to 'something WILL happen'. Yes, timbre CAN affect pitch perception. But perception is a very fluid thing. Many singers DO sing in tune. They have adjusted their perception of what they hear (which MAY involve a pitch-shift) to correspond with what the audience hears.

Anyone who has done manual pitch correction in AutoTune or similar programs will know that perceived pitch involves a lot more than the centre frequency.

To answer the original question. There MAY be a perceived pitch difference. Or there may not. If there is, good singers adjust their perception to compensate.

I have tried to help one particular singer who makes a very nice sound, consistently a semitone below the pitch of the music. Still struggling with that one!

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  • I might have to clarify because my point is not that how we hear our own voice always has pitch distortion for every singer. My point is that we know that pitch and timbre are related. Pitch, timbre and loudness are all related and can all affect each other to a greater or lesser extent. Since they are all subjective, we certainly can't say that no ones sense of the pitch of their own singing voice is affected by the timbral and loudness changes caused by their own head. So I'm confident that it does happen for some people, but not 100% certain. Commented Sep 28, 2017 at 22:53
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The difference is in the timbre and volume but not the pitch. We would not sing in tune if that was the case!

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    Pitch perception is affected by timbre (and loudness, of course). Stretch tuning for the piano is only the most famous example. Commented Sep 24, 2017 at 19:29
  • @ToddWilcox stretch tuning is only a consequence of the piano strings' inharmonicity, which means that the frequency can't really be measured objectively at all. That doesn't apply to phase-locked signals like the human voice. Commented Sep 24, 2017 at 22:24
  • @Some_Guy no, inharmonicity is only a thing for freely-decaying oscillations. Bowed strings, brass and voice simply don't have this phenomenon, because the driving forces the signal to an exact periodicity. Well, in practice not really exact of course because you don't play infinitely-long single notes, but at least the pitch is clearly well-defined. And that means “being in tune” is exactly defined too, by way of having exact integral frequency ratio. Timbre can't change this. (Of course this does't apply to piano due to both inharmonicity and 12-edo tuning smudge, but well... it's piano.) Commented Sep 24, 2017 at 23:08
  • @leftaroundabout I only used that as an example of pitch being related to timbre. I wasn't attempting to draw a parallel with voice. Commented Sep 25, 2017 at 0:10
  • @ToddWilcox - except that the question is particularly about voice and pitch. No mention of pianos and their tuning.
    – Tim
    Commented Sep 26, 2017 at 9:38

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