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I just finished listening to BBC Radio 4 Extra - All You Need Is Lab - How Science And Technology Inspired Innovation In Music

One of the contributors says (20:00 in from the start of the program) that we expect modern vocals to be perfectly in-tune, and that when we revisit really famous songs from the 60s and 70s we hear they're out-of-tune.

My question is, what songs are these? I can't think of any famous songs with out-of-tune vocals.

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    The list would be almost endless, but if you want some examples, try listening to any early Stones recording. Jagger's intonation is atrocious (although the band wasn't giving him much help, they couldn't even get their guitars in tune). – PiedPiper Apr 18 at 19:59
  • I don’t know if it’s just me, but Island In The Sun by Weezer sounds out of tune to me, and this was released in 2001 – Cotton Headed Ninnymuggins Apr 20 at 20:01
  • Well, since there were no digital pitch correction programs in those years, technically all of them were "out of tune". But that doesn't mean they were perceived as out-of-tune or bad! – user45266 Apr 21 at 6:00
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    @user45266 There have always been singers who could sing in tune, and there are still some who don't need auto-tune. – PiedPiper Apr 21 at 15:11
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    @PiedPiper You're correct! But I was really trying to be insolent and point out that "in-tune" has to be based on subjective perception (or else it's a meaningless term) in the context of human performance. Being "in-tune" isn't humanly possible if you only think of "in-tune" as "exactly matching the 12-TET intonation system right down to below the interval of a cent". Heck, even a freshly-tuned acoustic piano will not be exactly in tune, if you squint hard enough ;) – user45266 Apr 21 at 17:19
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More than anything else, this is about changing conceptions and definitions of "in tune." The current conception of being "in tune" comes from the ubiquity of auto-tuning software that mechanically corrects a singer's note to exact correspondence with an expected pitch.

Traditionally, however, only highly trained classical singers would have been expected to stick to the pure, European-scale tones we now think of as "in tune." A more relaxed definition was stylistically appropriate for genres like rock, punk, folk or grunge --the inexactness of the pitch was a sign of authenticity.

Conversely, the skilled singers of other genres, like soul pioneer Ray Charles, or jazz legend Billie Holiday, deployed strategically detuned vocal notes and notes that slide in and out of pitch to convey complexities of emotion and nuance (similar to bending a note on an electric guitar).

Finally, to go yet a step deeper, the modern equal-tempered scale is itself artificial, and musical traditions like the blues characteristically deploy notes that are out of sync with the tempered scale as a way of evoking an older, less European, and more natural approach to music. In fact, it was a tribute to the seemingly out-of-tune singing of rural Black American folk singers that led the seminal blues popularizer W. C. Handy to write his all-time classic "St. Louis Blues".

Or, going back to European music from the pre-tempered era, and sometimes still heard in acapella choral singing, there's the possibility of the entire key drifting, due to the imperfect matches between the mathematical ratios of different pure tones.

If you're used to the older styles, none of these examples may sound out of tune to you. For listeners who have grown up on modern pop, however, it's likely a very different story. Is it possible that the pendulum has swung to its farthest extent, and that imperfect pitch will make another comeback? Or is this just an example of the increasing primacy of technology over even our aesthetics? Only time will tell.

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  • "Traditionally, however, only highly trained classical singers would have been expected to have exact intonation": that's not true. Highly trained musicians of all sorts have been expected to have exact intonation. I'm thinking of barbershop and of the blues in the middle of the 20th century and earlier. Blues musicians were not striving for inexact pitch but for exact pitches that happened not to match those available on the piano. In other words, "strategically detuned vocal notes" require the ability to tune accurately and precisely. – phoog May 1 at 12:58
  • That's fair, I've edited to address your concern – Chris Sunami supports Monica May 1 at 15:13

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