By The Landlord
How can something that sounds so wrong, also sound so right? Being in tune isn’t always what it’s cracked up to be, nor is it always easy. ”Harpists spend 90% of their lives tuning their harps and 10% playing out of tune," said an impatient Igor Stravinsky. Pete Seeger amusingly said the same thing, but with a 50-50% split, about the 12-string guitar. And the poet George Crabbe mischievously remarked: "Feed the musician, and he's out of tune." But aside from the technicalities of tuning, or tuning systems, made so much easier now by gadgetry, particularly Auto-Tune for some less gifted live singers, we've all come across songs that are clearly not quite right in the frequency department. But while live performances can go out of tune due to temperature or wind direction changes, it is studio recordings where this topic primarily focuses and it most interesting because they are that way either by accident, or on purpose.
I say frequency, because, first, let's quickly get the science bit out of the way, and immediately say that this topic is not so much about what precise frequency a note is, but what you, as a reader and listener, actually hear within the context of an individual song, or a genre's parameters. Nor indeed does anyone need perfect pitch to enjoy this topic. It’s all about what you perceive. Does that sound a bit off? Why is it like that? Does it work? And by successful I mean as a good song, not commercially.
So, briefly, in standard western tuning, the A-note is set at 440 Hz, and all others in relation to it. And western ears are used to a standard 12 notes on the chromatic scale, with a variety of scale modes with those 12, used variously by jazz, blues and other musicians, from the most common, Ionian, to Dorian, Phrygian, Lydian, Mixolydian, Aelian and Locrian. But there’s no particular need to define those at this point, because even in the most complex and apparently discordant jazz pieces, most essentially stay in tune within those 12-note parameters, and still, whether they are to your taste or not, sound right within their own rules.
Meanwhile in a variety of other music, particularly from Persian, Arab, Armenian, Turkish, Assyrian or Kurdish cultures, the quarter tone is more common, especially with blown instruments such as the clarinet or trumpet. This can sound out of tune to the untrained ear, but it still isn’t. And of course when western guitarists bend their strings for effect, this doesn’t make them out of tune. But some do play with quarter tones to interesting effect. Japanese instrumentalist and inventor Yuichi Onoue, for example, has even developed a quarter tone guitar, as well as inventing extraordinary hybrids, such as the rather magical Kaisatsuko, a kind of hurdy-gurdy and a kokyu. But when he plays guitar with quarter tones, is it out of tune, or just different, and pushing the parameters of our senses? Have a listen:
This week the topic might be about the voice more than any other instrument. Culturally, singing out of tune tends to cause laughter or embarrassment. Who hasn’t heard many a song murdered on a karaoke stage? And two films earlier this year came out within a month of each other, the first, a French version, Marguerite, the second, Hollywood needing to do its own thing about the same person, Florence Foster Jenkins, the wealthy early 20th century American socialite who aspired to be a great soprano and entertained her guests while seemingly unaware she was tone deaf. The French version of her story was considerably more nuanced and less celebrity-laden:
But singing is going to be a primary source for nominations for this week’s topic, because strangely, so many great singers in popular song can’t always stay in tune. Is that part of their character and style? Arguably at least half of Bob Dylan’s work could be put into this category. But first let’s look at two masters of the out-of-tune song doing their own versions of the same, and ask what does their performance bring. First up, Ralph Stanley:
For me this tuning oddness works even better or this reason because it adds to the character of the performance – the bluegrass great Stanley sounds old and oaky, bony and bent by the ravages of time and experience. And now, let’s compare him to perhaps the finest exponent of the out-of-tune voice, Lou Reed, here in his Velvet Underground days:
Why does this work? Because it is pulled out of tune through the prism of Reed's maverick style of bile and cynicism, and sassy New York sarcasm etched into the half-talking, half-singing delivery of this aggressive and difficult but certainly intelligent artist. Or something like that. Or he was just too high to give a shit, or no one had the courage to tell him to sing it again. Either way, it works.
Going a bit out of tune can often add emotion, as long as it’s done in just the right amount. And Reed’s style is influenced countless others in the out-of-tune delivery genre. Some take on a more wistful, sadder, way to tune out, such as here with Jonathan Richman:
Alternatively there’s the more deep and doleful type of tunelessnes. Take Calvin Johnson of Beat Happening, who, when slipping in and out of the melody, adds an extra rawness to the lines “rock with skin and bone, it’s the cry of the wild, we cry alone, we cry alone”:
The variants continue. You could also, for example, tune out to the drop-out, slacker styles of the likes of Jeffrey Lewis, or here, Moldy Peaches with County Fair:
Anger also makes out-of-tune singing highly effective. Any Fall song? You can’t get much angrier than Mark E Smith. After all, the punk and even the postpunk ethos was never really about being in tune. And how about the bitter, twisted delivery of Violent Femmes’ Gordon Gano?
Some singers known for the normal on-note prowess can also let it slip. Rod Stewart and Python Lee Jackson strangely go awry, in voice and instrument at times, but somehow it still works in this classic:
And more recently ... Adam Green anyone? Meanwhile that most experimental and diverse of artists, Kevin Ayers, has also contributed to this topic, with a pleasingly lazy, laid-back and lugubrious example:
While singing is a key, or indeed off-key, part of this topic, there are also many odd examples of instruments going out of tune, whether by accident or on purpose. In Strawberry Fields, perhaps this was done for effect, to recreate drug-fuelled and woozy distortion of consciousness.
Arguably also the feedback pioneers, such as Jesus & Mary Chain and then Sonic Youth, control their out of tune playing in this way, so feel free to put them forward. Meanwhile listen to this classic by Led Zeppelin with an accidental example. A brilliant, bang on performance, but the Jimmy Page solo at around two minutes…?
Page later admitted that this solo was slotted at a different time, and it was recorded in another studio, but he hadn’t noticed that it wasn’t quite in tune with the rest of the song.
And so the examples can go on, so please feel free to suggest any of these above and many more, all proving that going out of tune can sometimes be successful, either by accident or design. And to end, let’s get a dose of that true master of the genre, in fact a man with a genre all of his own, tuning out vocally, instrumentally and psychologically
So then, in the chair this week is that finely-tuned ear and true paragon of Song Bar gurus, ParaMhor, who will take in your out-of-tune songs and tune them into perfectly pitched playlists published next Wednesday. Time will be called at some point on Monday, so listen carefully, and have fun with the frequencies.
New to comment? It is quick and easy. You just need to login to Disqus once. All is explained in About/FAQs ...
Fancy a turn behind the pumps at The Song Bar? Care to choose a playlist from songs nominated and write something about it? Then feel free to contact The Song Bar here, or try the usual email address.