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We have a song we're recording and parts are sung fairly loud and end out of tune. We found that there are 2-3 words that somehow were fitting better and more natural when as they were recorded and just don't fit as well when not in tune.

In one case, we have one that somehow 'flows' better in the song when it's halfway between two half steps.

That brings 2 questions:

  • Does it make sense to stay out of tune, quite a lot in some cases, just because it's more pleasing to the ear?
  • Is it possible that we just got used to how it sounds that way, and other renditions just don't seem as good?

closed as primarily opinion-based by David Bowling, Tim H, Carl Witthoft, Richard, Dom Mar 30 at 21:35

Many good questions generate some degree of opinion based on expert experience, but answers to this question will tend to be almost entirely based on opinions, rather than facts, references, or specific expertise. If this question can be reworded to fit the rules in the help center, please edit the question.

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    I can’t see any reason to do anything that is less pleasing to the ear, unless you’re trying to annoy people watching a horror movie or something. – Todd Wilcox Mar 26 at 18:27
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    In & out of tune can depend on the musical style. A Blues 3rd & 7th isn't anywhere a piano can hit, but a singer can. Also, sliding to a note sometimes works better than hitting it dead-on, but again only in context. – Tetsujin Mar 26 at 18:28
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    There is the notion that repetition legitimizes. When you’re out of tune once, it’s a mistake. If you do it again in the same spot in the same way, maybe you meant to do it. It’s subjective and sometimes out-of-tune is just out-of-tune, but it can be used as expression, too. – trw Mar 26 at 19:29
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    @ToddWilcox What's pleasing to someone's ear might not be pleasing to another's ear. When you want to please others, you can either trust your own ear, ask others to listen, or try to find out if there is some general theory about it that might help. – JiK Mar 26 at 22:31
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    Out of tune or in tune can be a very relative matter. Note the term "tune". If the tune is supposed to be that special way you like it to be then it is in fact in tune, because that is the way you want the tune to be. There is a huge amount of possible pitches and not just the 12 fixed ones within an octave. – Lars Peter Schultz Mar 27 at 0:10
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Technically vibrato is going in and out of "tune."

But that is controlled, and I think that is the key to approaching the question.

If it's deliberate, creating some intended effect, it seems like a valid musical choice.

All kinds of slides, half-sung notes, etc. are used by singers and add life to a performance. By comparison when I hear a very "clean" performance of a song that it well known with a "messy" performance, it's the messy performance that is more expressive.

There is another specific case to keep in mind and that is the blues derived singing of a minor third over a major chord. Ex. singing an F natural over a D major chord which containers the F# major third. By one standard that is horribly out of tune. By another standard - a bluesy standard - it's a gritty, dirty sound that is desirable.

Your "out of tune" stuff may be working according to a different aesthetic standard than something like... Taylor Swift, etc.

A funny anecdote: recently I went to a high school musical. The male lead sang out of tune the whole night! I mean clearly out of tune. At first it was strange. I kept thinking "how did this guy get the part?" After a while I didn't care and - in a strange way - it made the character endearing. He sang with such feeling (but out of tune) and in the end he brought home the part. (No, it wasn't my kid.)

  • I've seen this happen! One time, I witnessed a high school vocal concert during which a group of three sang some pop song to a backing track, and sung the entire song a half-step sharp compared to their backing track. Another time, a kid sung a Mariah Carey song at a choir concert. He sung the entire thing way out of tune, but there was so much confidence and emotion that he pretty much stole the show. – user45266 Mar 27 at 4:22
  • One thing that help the performance I mentioned is they used an actual band - no prerecorded accompaniment (which I really, really dislike.) What a difference that makes. – Michael Curtis Mar 27 at 12:43
  • Oh, absolutely! I always wondered how the people in the pit could even see what they were doing, let alone play the music so well, when I was little :) – user45266 Mar 27 at 15:08
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When is out of tune ok?

Most of the time. You could write a whole book on all the situations in which 'out of tune' is the norm - from the individual harmonics of stringed instruments, to temperaments of scales, to chorus pedals, to blue notes, to 'unpitched' percussion instruments and spoken passages of indeterminate pitch.... as well as not hitting an exact note for expressive purposes.

Does it make sense to stay out of tune, quite a lot in some cases, just because it's more pleasing to the ear?

Yes.

Is it possible that we just got used to how it sounds that way, and other renditions just don't seem as good?

Yes. at the end of the day, this is an artistic choice - you should trust your own artistic judgement, but why not also ask opinions of others who are familiar with the style of music?

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The recording is not out of tune.

“Out of tune” means the pitch is wrong. If it sounds right the way you recorded it, then it is by definition in tune. What would be out of tune in this case would be to force it to a wrong 12-edo pitch.

It is a sad misconception that 12-edo is somehow the single valid system of pitches. In fact 12-edo is just a pragmatic approximation of 5-limit just intonation. Unfortunately, it has become so standard in Western music that many musicians won't even consider deviating from it anymore. But that's a completely obnoxious stance. In other cultures it's understood that many times the correct pitch will not lie within 12-edo.

That said: out of tune is not ok. You should investigate what's really going on here. Play and sing the part again slowly with a simple chord backing and test out what pitch really sounds the best. A pitch that has been achieved with Melodyne or even Autotune will always sound inherently worse than the same pitch sung right during recording.

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Perhaps those words were sung to blue notes?  Those are notes that aren't part of a traditional scale but still seem to work well in some types of music (notably, blues) — most commonly a lowered third, fifth, or seventh.

Ultimately, if you like the sound and that's what you want on the recording, then you don't need any permissions or excuses, just go with it.  There are no hard-and-fast rules in music!

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