Saturday, October 20, 2007

On Artistic Expression, Part 2: Pitch

Let me begin this post with a potentially controversial statement: Pitch is an artificial construct, foisted upon us by our culture. Why is this controversial? Perhaps because people such as myself have spent many years and dollars studying a discipline that is centered around the concept of playing or singing in tune, matching the pitches perfectly. Then, we turn around and teach the next generation the same concepts.

Now, technically, pitch is actually the number of cycles per second a sound wave travels through the air, so in that sense, perhaps we wouldn't call it an artificial construct. I am referring instead to our perception of pitch within our western scale -- you know, the one that starts with A and ends with G#?

Of course, the greatest evidence for this hypothesis is the fact that, in some eastern cultures, there are more scale tones to the octave. These are quite foreign to our ears, and usually sound "out of tune." However, to those brought up in that culture, they sound perfectly normal.

In many indie rock styles, it is actually considered inauthentic to sing or play too much in tune. This is most likely rooted in the punk aesthetic. There are also many R&B singers who tend to sing consistently out of tune. In recent years, R&B and rap artists have incorporated non-western sounds into their music. I believe this has contributed to this phenomenon. Popular music was born from a fusion of western and non-western sounds, which may partly explain why pop musicians have never been overly concerned with singing in tune.

I have come to the point in my life where I no longer consider singing or playing out of tune a bad thing. If someone has an interesting sound, but isn't quite in tune, it doesn't bother me. I also no longer consider that solely a reflection of someone's musical ability. Unfortunately (or perhaps fortunately for the listener,) I cannot divorce myself of the obsession with being in tune. Perhaps that will come in time.

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