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I heard the song "Pacific State" by the band "808 State" on the radio last night.

It sounded to me like the sax was badly out of tune.

But it then struck me that the performer might be playing that way deliberately.

Which is it? Is it that my ear is not sophisticated enough to appreciate the deliberate temperament chosen by the performer, or should I trust my initial reaction, which says that the sax player is just not very good?

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...should I trust my initial reaction, which says that the sax player is just not very good?

Yes! It's played by someone who by their own admission can't play the sax - producer and engineer Graham Massey:

"At that point, I was still recording with Biting Tongues, which had turned from a normal band into a sort of electronic duo with a jazz‑influenced saxophone front line. Howard Walmsley, who played the sax in Biting Tongues, had left his soprano from a session the night before, and so I picked it up and just had a go. I'd played the clarinet and was a bit of a have‑a‑go saxophone player, but I was not a real saxophone player. Still, I could crank out a melody, and I think my limited ability made it what it was."

(From Sound on Sound magazine).

In accordance with that 'experimental' attitude, I would imagine that it was simply played until the result was pleasing to Massey's ear, with only secondary consideration for whether or not it was in tune by some standard. Personally I rather like the intonation - I think it contributes to the somewhat melancholy, otherworldly feel of the track - but with this, as with everything else in music, de gustibus non est disputandum!

As a more general point, being (arguably) "out of tune" is something that is done deliberately in modern music in all sorts of contexts, for all sorts of reasons - whether it's simply the use of equal temperament, or blue notes being bent through a whole semitone, or the honky-tonk piano (and other chorus effects!), or rappers singing deliberately off key because being too in tune wouldn't sound 'street' - it's all out there.

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Nope. It's simply out of tune.

Bloody awful piece of 'music'. Can't listen to it because of that hideous lead line.

Best guess is it's a found sample & no-one was smart enough to get it in tune, so they just left it. Some people have a very broad tolerance for tuning.
I don't :P

  • There's a wonderful performance by some female jazz singer in which she deliberately goes almost a full half-tone off pitch all the way through. I wish like crazy I could find it again; I can't even remember who the performer was. – Carl Witthoft Feb 1 at 13:46
  • There was a lot of similar stuff in the 90s, when DJs first decided they could be musicians too... just without the talent. Tuning like this was just everywhere, as they all spun in their favourite bits of non-matching cr@p :\ I just dug out another of my 'favourites' Massive Attack, Unfinished Sympathy. That flown in 'yeah yeah' is just painful. – Tetsujin Feb 1 at 13:48
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    @Carl Witthoft You mean the stuff Jo Stafford did as Darlene Edwards? youtube.com/watch?v=NySAbB2JLII – Laurence Payne Feb 2 at 1:09
  • @LaurencePayne That sure fits the bill. Thanks!! – Carl Witthoft Feb 2 at 15:05

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