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Pitch perception and key resolution.

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  • Pitch perception and key resolution.

    I declare upfront that I have almost no knowledge of music theory. I may not express myself well, or use the most appropriate terms, but I will do my best.

    The problem is that a melody can sound strange or "off key" to me, for a short while, then I seem to "tune in" and it sounds fine.

    On the odd occasions that this happens, it is usually just the beginning of the music that sounds off. But if I replay the entire thing, the beginning then sounds fine. That suggests that it is a perception thing. How normal is this?

    It can also happen if I switch back after listening to another piece of music. But within a minute, it all sounds OK again.

    It occurs to me that my ears may just be adjusting to the "key" - although, not being a musician, I couldn't actually tell you one key from the next.

    If this is normal, do those of you who arrange music have to lead gently into situation where there is a change of key, so as to cue the listener?

    I don't know how much sense all this makes, but I am just trying to understand what is going on with my ears!

  • #2
    I've been a musician for 50 years and still have it happen occasionally. The music level needs to be low enough where I cant hear it completely, maybe a radio in the distance, I'll hear some chording or past that's louder then the others and think the song is in one key, but another part like a Vocal comes in and then I'll recognize what key its actually in.

    There are even some songs out there that spoof you like that intentionally but normally its just an accompaniment part to some musical composition that's playing a harmony or inversion to the root cord that throws you off.

    If this happened to you at normal volume with allot of songs then its likely a matter of ear training and knowing which instruments to listen to in order to capture the key. In allot of western music there are parts line the Bass Chords or Melody that will use the scales of the key and are dead give away's. Other music may not be as simple because the melody may move from instrument to instrument.

    I cant give you any solid advice because music is an art form and its recognized in so many different ways by the listener. As a Musician, one of the first things you learn is musical notation is actually a language that can be read. In the beginning its like learning a foreign language that doesn't seem to make any sense. When you learn English you learned there were nouns, verbs, additives, pronouns etc. There were also rules in the way you would use certain words so you don't confuse the person listening or reading what you write.

    When you're trained in music theory, you first learn similar historical rules on how notes are put together. Later you learn all the ways those rules can be broken. The notation itself tell you the key, the speed, the pitches, Note duration, the duration of silence between notes, and all kinds of other accents, loudness, speed changes and queues which tell you how to play the notes the way the author of the music intended them to be played so the right emotional details to the music are played.

    An example would be putting a question mark at the end of a sentence. When you read the line back you're likely to raise your voice at the end of the line then pause waiting for an answer. Written music is loaded with these kinds of descriptive queues for the performer so when they read the music they can properly perform the notes as written. In a full orchestra you have different parts written for all the various instruments. Sometimes the keys they are written in are unique for the instruments as well.

    All the parts are combined together in a master score which contains all the various parts which the conductor uses. A conductor is usually Maestro, a distinguished musician who often knows how to play multiple instruments well and is able to lead others in a group like an orchestra. You often have them in smaller bands too. Even rock bands wind up having players who have more experience either in playing of the business itself and may take on the role of Maestro.

    Anyway, its not necessary to learn to read music to enjoy it or to play it. There are tens of thousands of guitarists out there who never learned to read a single note. Plus there are substitute methods called tabs which can be used. Just like English, you don't have to know how to write in order to speak the language, but most musicians recognize the value of a higher understanding of theory and do their best to pick up bits and pieces as they advance in playing skill. Learning to read is still the shortest short cut to the highest education levels in music. Of course that doesn't always equate to becoming rich, but being a performer is allot like being an athlete. Your best years as a performer and getting a name for yourself come at a young age so getting a good working knowledge under your belt as soon as possible will put you ahead of the competition in your field.


    • #3
      Sometimes, when learning a song or going into a situation cold, I confuse the Dominant for the Tonic. For example, I may think the piece is in G and when I start to play it sounds a little off key.

      Fortunately I've come to recognize that particular degree of being "off key" and quickly switch to C which is the actual Tonic.
      I am the Awareness in which all of this takes place.


      • #4
        Oh man

        Beyond that exercise in ignorance, some time in the 80s I was at a Yamaha clinic where the guy was constructing a Salsa groove with DX7s and the sequencer of the month. He laid out a plain Jane three or four note bass riff which he let loop while he contemplated his options. This dumb bass part repeated itself into my conciousness; brain dead tonality included. Long story short, by the time the piano part was down, the tune had magically appeared in a whole nuther key! Somebody say tritone sub lol...
        Originally posted by Unconfigured Static HTML Widget...

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        • #5
          A friend once gave me some traditional Mexican music, and I guess it wasn't keyed in any Western standard. All the songs sounded off key. However, it was only a matter of a few months before my ears acquired a taste for whatever key they were using, and I enjoyed the music.

          I listen to a lot of traditional music from all over the world, but I know some people who can't because the unfamiliar key puts them off. So, while I would like to be able to consciously recognize different keys, I wouldn't want to find myself in a position where I'm stuck with those keys, and other stuff irritates me.

          I've had the situation WRGKMC describes, of listening to muffled music, especially when I have put my headphones down, and lost track of what is playing. In the most extreme cases, all I hear coming from the headphones is a random mess. But as soon as I know what is playing, it sounds clear and true as a bell!

          So, yes, it is like reading. We recognize words using cues and familiar semantics, rather than scanning individual letters.

          So, we have a built-in tolerance. But how much of a blessing is that as a vocalist? You have to sing for people who have less tolerance. What constitutes sufficient cues for you (especially regarding your own vocals) may be inadequate for other people. They will find your singing pitchy. It is a notorious fact that some people cannot hear their own pitchiness.

          Sometimes, it is not just the key that sounds odd. For me, these voices, while individually very good, aren't mixing:


          • #6
            Considering the technology used for television back then, and the expected listening source which was often a single low quality TV speaker in mono, I think the mix is pretty good for a live show. I've seen many Don Kirshner Rock concerts from the 70's that sounded pretty awful in comparison. I've also heard the audio only mixed for CD's or tape of the same shows which wound up sounding pretty darn good in comparison to when it was imbedded in the mono video track.

            TV commonly used AGC compression. A potential disadvantage of AGC is that when recording something like music with quiet and loud passages the AGC will tend to make the quiet passages louder and the loud passages quieter, compressing the dynamic range; the result can be a reduced musical quality if the signal is not re-expanded when playing, as in a companding system.
            Most VCR circuits use the amplitude of the vertical blanking pulse to operate the AGC. Video copy control schemes such as Macrovision exploit this, inserting spikes in the pulse which will be ignored by most television sets, but cause a VCR's AGC to overcorrect and corrupt the recording.

            These older TV Video recordings often have this compression embedded in the films and there's often little you can do about it. A good studio can take the audio and use an expander which is just the opposite of a compressor. Instead of the loud notes getting softer and soft notes louder it would do just the opposite and increase the loud parts and soften the quiet parts. Digital recordings have a huge amount of dynamic headroom available.

            Giving a recording back some of its live dynamics can have a surprising impact on what the ears hear as being natural. The video you posted was highly typical during the 60's. Seeing that its a French film it may have lagged behind in recording technology and production quality a bit compared to what was going on in the US at the time. Its actually quite comparable to duo acts during the Folk era like the Everly Brothers back then.

            As you can see in this Video the singers were a bit more accomplished in blending their voices by working the mic using its proximity effect. Some notes they will get closer to the mic and others they will back off to maintain a balanced volume level between each other using the same mic.

            The other thing you can notice is the amount of reverb on the vocals. Reverb produces a natural blend to vocals and it also helps the singers lock their note pitches together so they sing in tune together because the trails of the voice act like a histogram for a second or two which allows the singer to make corrections to their voice. As a singer you can feel its added inertia and lock into a steady pitch much more easily. Especially with those old plate reverb units or natural concert hall reflections many of the large studios had in the US.

            On the French video they went for close up head shots with very little head movement. This would undoubtedly required more compression to maintain equal volume levels. They shared a mic which requires a tight performance act to blend well. The Mic looks to be A Unidyne III mic or close relative which was popular for live vocals because it is unidirectional and produces a minimum of feedback.

            The problem with the mics is they have a tight focused polar pattern and big proximity bump in the bass response as you get close to them. I've used Unidynes and 57's for a good deal of my life for vocals. When you have two people sing into the mic you have to practically bump heads projecting two voices into one and just a few inches movement and your voice can loose bass response or drop out completely.

            From what I see, the singers were using that mic very well considering its nature. The male singer seems to have a very tight and fast vibrato. This can do strange things if the vocals have allot of reverb so the dryer vocals up tight on a mic like that was probably the best they could do in that artistic situation given the technology of that era.



            • #7
              What a coincidence. I was listening to that very clip only a couple of days ago! I was wondering if it was live live, or just *cough* "live".
              I suspect that they also have the advantage that it is two male voices mixing.

              I don't know why, but the male voice in the Donna Donna clip sounds relatively a touch flat to me. In this case, the presence of the female voice seems to exaggerate something in the male voice, which would have otherwise have worked well.
              Last edited by kickingtone; 06-12-2016, 11:12 AM.