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Is it the song "in your head" that is out of tune or is it your vocalisation of that ideal song that is off, and if so why/how?

I guess what I'm asking is how is it possible to sing consistently out of tune having to fight your brain "automatically" correcting your pitch. Pitch tracking is really not that complicated for a neural net.

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    The sound produced by a singers voice doesn't always match the sound that a singer hears in their head, due to resonance specific to the singers skull (at least, I believe that this is the explanation: maybe someone who knows more about this than me will answer). Also, I don't see how neural nets are relevant to the way humans perceive and interact with sound. – David Bowling Apr 11 '18 at 10:30
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    @DavidBowling - It's often the case that a singer hears a different sound resonating through the head as opposed to through the ears, but the pitch is usually the same. – Tim Apr 11 '18 at 10:32
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    I once had an ear infection that resulted in left & right ears perceiving pitch at almost a semitone difference. Truly weird few days. – Tetsujin Apr 11 '18 at 10:56
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    Are you more concerned with failure to correct or the need to correct each pitch because you "missed" hitting it on the head to start? – Carl Witthoft Apr 11 '18 at 16:04

11 Answers 11

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This is all a bit stream of consciousness... hope I didn't drift too far from the plot ;-)

People who sing out of tune rarely sing consistently out of tune.

People who really cannot sing tend also to not be able to identify correct pitches at all - to greater or lesser degree. They're not fighting an inner tuning, they just don't have one.

The ability to recognise pitch is like most things natural, a bell-curve of population against ability.
Very very few people have zero ability to recognise or reproduce pitch.
Most people can kind of carry a tune, even if only in a bucket ;).
Again, few people have the ability to absolutely lock to a pitch with no external reference, known as 'perfect pitch'.

I can sing. I know I can sing.
I also know I don't have perfect pitch.
I have reasonable relative pitch, which is the ability to keep a tune up once you've been given the first note or a reference chord.
What I do have, once given that reference, is a very tight tolerance for being able to stick to it - so long as the reference chords continue. At that point, I'm in my element... constant external reference to which I can accurately nail a tune.

At that point, I find anything which is not in tune to be painful to hear.

Remove my reference, though, & I will eventually drift away from the original pitch. I'm OK so long as I don't hear any other reference. I can stay on pitch for an entire song, so long as I know it well enough, but I can be immediately thrown if I hear another tune, or another pitch reference of any type which doesn't fit what I currently have as my remembered reference.

Neural nets, or even regular computers, have a great advantage over humans. They have 'perfect pitch'. They can be taught to recognise what a pitch is by actually counting the frequency of a sound wave & just looking it up in a table.
Humans can't count that fast, nor do they have any kind of quartz watch type of reference to count against.

So, a human has to recognise a pitch & then reproduce it by 'natural talent'. Some can do it, some can't, to varying degrees.

Late Edit:

edit of edit, though I'll leave the original gripe below...
Further research tells me this is probably not auto-tune. They just picked the chorus he did the best & flew it in down the length of the track - a fairly standard practise since at least the 80s, though usually just for the big, difficult stuff like huge block BVs.
It's still painfully sharp.


This song has bothered me for years & still hurts every time I hear it.
Specific ref is the chorus, first heard at 1:42 but I'm not going to time-stamp it in the link because you need to hear the entire thing to get the base pitching nailed in your head first.
The vocal is generally pretty tuneless, but the chorus [in fact, most of the 'money notes'] has been auto-tuned... by someone who wasn't all that sensitive to the song's base pitch.
The result is that if you sing along to it you need to intentionally squeeze your vocal about 5 cents sharp, each & every chorus, to hit what auto-tune pushed his vocal to, rather than what you would sing if left to your own inner reference.
It gets even more noticeable in the later choruses, when whoever is doing the BVs is actually closer to pitch than the lead vox.

I'm aware most people don't [can't] hear this - but it would be nice if someone did...

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    That Oasis thing sounds more like a comma pump to me. In a sense, Gallagher is too accurate and modulates to the relative major with a just 6/5 interval, putting him a comma sharp from the rest of the band. – mm201 Apr 11 '18 at 18:26
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    I'm pretty sure the description 'too accurate' cannot be applied to this vocal, by any stretch of the imagination. – Tetsujin Apr 11 '18 at 19:01
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    Wonderwall was realeased in 1995, several years before autotune existed. – Nathaniel Apr 12 '18 at 7:31
  • I’ve been looking into this- & racking my brains for when I first had tuning technology. I worked for a musical instrument major at the time & so saw many things long before the public did. I’m also trying to recall the source of my info that this album was ‘automatically tuned’ (whether or not it was Antares). Will do more research & report back. – Tetsujin Apr 12 '18 at 11:00
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    OK I need to revise (though not reduce;) my gripe on Wonderwall. Autotune was invented in 95, so probably too late for it to be on that album. That changes my gripe to ‘they picked the chorus he got closest to in tune & flew it into every chorus’. That’s why it’s always the same amount of out of tune. – Tetsujin Apr 12 '18 at 11:29
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I grew up in a house with two parents that could not carry a tune at all. Therefor I never had a good reference for what singing in tune sounded like. I wound up playing the drums and not a pitched instrument due to this.

It wasn't until I was in high school and considering going to music school that I started to work on singing in pitch. This is something that is still hard for me, however I can now recognize much better that I am off pitch when I am singing along to something but sometimes just can't correct it.

I was able to pass 4 levels of ear training in college which involved sight singing, and melodic dictation as well as other ear training tasks. However, I may still sing off tune at time. I think it is a combination of not keeping up with my ear training (it is a muscle and needs to be exercised), not knowing a song well enough, and frankly sometimes just being lazy. Singing in tune for me takes a good deal of work and doesn't come naturally, so sometimes I drift off if I am casually singing along.

I am better when I have a reference to sing to (singing along to a song, or with my guitar) but singing alone isn't easy because the model in my brain doesn't have a solid pitch reference. If a song is well rehearsed, meaning I have taken the time to really practice the melody (and can hear it clearly in my head I will be able to stay in tune much better.

Of course when I think I am in tune I may be slightly out of tune to a better trained singer. This may be my ear just not being trained enough to hear being out of tune by a few cents or could be that my vocal chords are not trained enough to be that accurate. I have been playing the guitar for a few months now and I can hear things being out of tune while playing that I couldn't hear a few months ago...so It is really about practice/training and to some degree natural ability. We are all at different levels.

I won't touch on the neural network issue as I think @Tetsujin answered that at the end of his answer above.

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I think that your singing can only be as good as your hearing. If your ears aren't trained and say "Yeah, good enough!" for a wide range around the correct pitch, you can sing completely out of tune without noticing it.

That was my problem for a long time. I didn't sing at all as a kid and my family didn't sing either. I tried to sing as a teenager, but my friends wouldn't let me finish the first sentence of the first verse. I also tried to play guitar, but I didn't bother to tune it because it all sounded the same to me.

I then met a violin teacher who became my wife. Anytime I tried to sing or play guitar, she would patiently tell me "Too low", "Way too high", "Wrong key. Start again with this note." and so on. After a few years of getting this feedback and hearing her sing in tune, my ears got much better. Only then could I begin to sing in tune and apply this feedback alone. I also began to get bothered by out-of-tune singers or instruments.

This process seems to be the same for many other abilities. I don't want to learn how to distinguish good wines for example. I'm perfectly happy with cheap, "out-of-tune" wines. :)

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    That's a really beautiful gift your wife gave you there. Someone once told me that the one of the purest expressions of love is to teach each other. Anyway I'm sounding sappy af so I'll stop now, but thanks for your answer :) – Some_Guy Apr 12 '18 at 9:03
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    @Some_Guy Thanks for the feedback. It's indeed an invaluable gift, and it's a joy to share it with her now! – Eric Duminil Apr 12 '18 at 20:35
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"what I'm asking is how is it possible to sing consistently out of tune having to fight your brain "automatically" correcting your pitch"

I sure wish my brain automatically corrected my pitch. But that's like asking an amateur baseball player why he doesn't just let his brain automatically hit a home run.

A bad singer is somebody whose brain doesn't do that. I have at best a very approximate memory for pitch, and very little ability to reproduce the pitch -- or the vague idea of a pitch -- that I'm hearing in my head. Once I'm singing a note, it may drift, and by the time I notice it, it would be far too late to do anything about it even if I could do anything about it. I can't imagine what one would do. Maybe someday I'll start to figure that out.

Let's say you have a ruler in your head. Now draw two marks 11.5 cm apart (or nine and a quarter inches if you prefer) on a sheet of paper. Chances are you can't do that. That's me with pitch. And I hear the errors, believe me. It's maddening and immensely frustrating. (But that's life. Imagine never doing anything you haven't already mastered. I'll take the frustration.)

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Part of the problem for the out of tune singer is knowing what you are listening for.

In my early days of trying to tune a guitar, I could never make the fifth fret of one guitar string produce the same sound as the next string played as an open string. Why? Because they will never produce the same sound! The strings had different thicknesses, were being plucked a different proportion of the way along, had a different portion of them over the sound hole, etc. The sounds might resemble each other e.g. be composed of different quantities of the same basic frequencies, but the different timbre of the sounds meant I could always tell them apart and they didn't sound the same to me.

Trying to sing in tune means isolating certain properties of "the note" being sung. If the same person (i.e. same voice) sings a C note and sings A,E,I,O,U vowels, we can identify which vowel they are singing. How? Because we are not singing one note. The resonant frequency of the vocal chords is let's say about 100Hz. The harmonic we pick as being the note sung will be one of these harmonics. Which one?

The harmonics of a C, are 1x=C, 2x=C (an octave higher), 3x=G, 4x=C (an ocatave higher still), 5x=E, 6x=G, 7x~=A# etc. The different vowel sounds come from changing the shape of the mouth and highlighting different harmonics; to simplify, let's say just a pair of them. Then which of the two harmonics chosen for do we pick out and identify as the note being sung?

When singing Happy Birthday in English, French people tend to sing a different interval for TO YOU compared to English people, because their language has different vowel sounds.

Due to local accents a singer may be making their vowel sounds differently to another singer, but wants to sing the same vowel as they are using the same lyrics.

Another thing to consider is the range of someone's voice. If you sing along to something, you may at times be compelled to jump up or down an octave as the range of your voice doesn't match the range of the singers. Another person might have sung the song to themselves in the past and sing the song in the range that fits their voice. It just isn't musically in tune with everyone else because their brain isn't working that way, but they can stay within the range of their voice.

Do out of tune singers hear that they are off? People buy music by singers that are off! It's a question of degree. Even people that cannot sing in tune can usually recognize when something is very wrong, though when singing themselves they may be concentrating on the lyrics, remembering the tune, getting the intervals right, or their plans for the evening.

Most people listening to a recording will be surprised how they sound.

  • +1 for the Les Dawson vid. That man's musical talent should not be underestimated :-) PLus your answer is decent – user2808054 Dec 14 '18 at 15:48
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I guess what I'm asking is how is it possible to sing consistently out of tune having to fight your brain "automatically" correcting your pitch.

That's a huge assumption right there, that everyone has this "automatic pitch correction". I personally do not. My voice sounds correct in my head when I sing, but I know for a fact is horribly off tune to anyone else who listens. I can hear a note and get relatively close in my head as to how it sounds, but for all I know that's widely off for anyone else listening.

Other posters have suggested that they know they are off key. I do not. I simply cannot tell that I am singing incorrectly unless somebody else tells me.

  • I'm curious, did you sing/play much as a child? Obviously this is not a scientific sample but I'm curious whether this is an innate thing or if environment plays a big part in it too, Eric Duminil's answer has certainly got me interested – Some_Guy Apr 12 '18 at 9:05
  • @Some_Guy I'm in a similar position (I sometimes know I'm wrong). I suspect it's part nature, part nurture. I probably didn't get much from nature, and never really worked on improving it with practice. If I had focused on doing so when young, I'd probably be better. Even later in life, with some "background work" (not explicitly practising; just being around some people who were better) I have got "less awful", so there's probably always hope! – TripeHound Apr 12 '18 at 13:11
  • @Some_Guy Played Clarinet up to grade 5 from 9 to 16. Only knew I was in tune if my teacher told me. No formal singing education. – SGR Apr 12 '18 at 13:43
  • My sister, who's played music her entire life, says she's only recently begun to be able to accurately judge her tuning accuracy and how she should fix it when it's out. She's 39. It's a learned skill like any other, and some find it harder than others do. I picked it up quicker than she did, but then she never had my absolutely tuning-obsessed recorder teacher. I transferred this sense to singing, however to hear that I'm out of tune does require me to be able to hear myself, which is not a given in all environments... – Matthew Walton Apr 12 '18 at 14:54
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I have known people who genuinely can't carry a tune and can't tell that they can't carry a tune. One thought she was actually quite good at singing until trying out for the lead in a musical. Some cases are simply due to inexperience, and with proper teaching, they can learn. For others, it's truly like being color-blind, hence tone-deaf.

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Singing out of tune can be due to so many things. Most people who sing out of tune simply lack training. How you shape your mouth for different sounds, breathing techniques, using your gut, ear training, etc.

"Being in tune" also depends on the music around you. If everyone else is playing flat and you are at A=440hz, you'll sound out of tune. If I put 70 singers together and they are sing equally sharp, it will sound "in tune". Being "in tune" is really defined as having the same pitches as the musicians around you.

Fun fact - we used to make music with A=432hz. Then some stuff happened, now we tune everyone to A=440hz. 432hz isn't "wrong", it's just different.

This all comes back to training - learning to adapt to the pitches around you and having your ears trained so they can help you adapt.

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I definitely hear that I'm off (consistently), and try to correct for it. Making it do the right thing, or hearing which way to go is difficult. Often it's a question of having fine enough granularity of control. That is, I can hear that I'm off by some amount X, but can only adjust by adding or subtracting 2X. Or 5X. :( On the few occasions when I hit a note absolutely perfectly, I can hear it, if I'm singing along with someone. I even hit one of the notes in "Seven Bridges Road," back in the late 90s or so.

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There are two things to remember (well three kind of).

  • Being in tune takes practice. You can hear when your out of tune. Even if you don't have perfect pitch, you can still hear it, if you know what to listen for. There is a kind of wa-wa-wa-wa-wa occaleation that happens. The closer you are the more pronounced and slower the "wa" is. Once you know to listen for this is damn near impossible not to hear it. For it to work though you need to have two "voices" singing. When they are in tune there will be little to no "wa-wa".

  • Being in tune is kind of like measuring weight. You need a reference. If your singing solo, your only reference is the note before the current one. If you sing a C as a C# for 60 seconds the C will sound just fine, and it is fine. In music we have gotten into a modern habit of this note equals this frequency, but historically is has not been that way. It has always been (and still truly is today) This note is many "steps" from this note. So an out of tune singer (especially measured electronically) can sing a wonderful, amazing piece and not once be on the right frequency so long as the notes have the right amount of space between them.

So, can a person that is habitually out of tune here it? Yes, if they know how, but it's important to remember that C is not a fixed pitch but a certain distance from C# and B. As long as the theoretical persons note spacing is correct then they are correct, and in tune, it's your notion of a note that is incorrect.

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    "Being in tune is kind of like the speed of light. You need a reference." -- This seems a very odd comparison; the Second Postulate of Special Relativity states that the speed of light is the same in all inertial reference frames. You need a reference to measure the speed of things other than light. – David Bowling Apr 12 '18 at 3:14
  • The speed of light is not constant. sciencenews.org/article/speed-light-not-so-constant-after-all even in a vacuum. Though we tend to think of it as a static number, it fact "half the speed of light" is a changing number because the speed of light changes. But yes I could have picked a better analogy. – coteyr Apr 12 '18 at 3:41
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    "The speed of light is not constant." That is a pretty preposterous statement, and anyone who can prove that in a meaningful way seems likely to win a Nobel Prize. The article you link to seems short on details and long on the sort of popular science journalistic hyperbole that gave us faster than light neutrinos. Nothing there looks like Special Relativity is violated. – David Bowling Apr 12 '18 at 4:01
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    The whole point of 'perfect pitch' is not needing a reference (or at least an external reference). It looks/sounds amazing to those who don't do it, but for those who have it it's just... normal. Sometimes to their disadvantage (when they're the one off-key because everyone else is following the wrong reference). – Ng Oon-Ee Apr 12 '18 at 6:15
  • A440 is "new" until "recently" that "A" was 435, or 444, or 415, or 430, and probably a bunch of others. In orchestras is still customary to tune by ear, meaning if the player leading the tuning (usually a woodwind) plays A4 and 415 Hz, then every one else adjusts. Of course 440 is the "new standard" and you would usually tune to that. But even all but the cheapest electronic tuners have the option to adjust the tuning frequency. – coteyr Apr 12 '18 at 8:41
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The short answer to your question is some do and some don't, in my experience.

I once tested my father at the piano, playing a note and asking him to sing it. He was typically anywhere from a third to a tritone off, and had no idea whether he was hitting the right note or not. He would play the recorder, and would miss a sharp or a flat in the key signature, and blissfully go on playing the wrong note with no idea that it was wrong. Whatever uncomplicated part of the neural net is responsible for pitch adjustment, it must have been missing from his particular brain.

There are certainly people who have a great ear and can't sing a note, too, people who don't have enough control of their voices to recreate the pitch that they hear in their heads. There are string players, for example, who don't have intonation problems on their instrument, but who can't carry a tune. Conversely, although I can sing very well, my violin playing sounds like a catfight. My brain does automatically correct pitch with my voice, but I don't have any sort of autocorrect mechanism to fix my string intonation.

It seems clear that there are deeper things afoot here than brain anatomy. As far as I can see, we just don't know much about why some people can follow pitches and some can't. The best we can say is that some folks got it and some don't.

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