Songs in the Key of Huh?
July 27, 2020 2:03 PM   Subscribe

Sometimes when I'm listening to music in a noisy environment, my brain seems to hear it in the wrong key. What's going on?

Something I've wondered about for a while - occasionally I'll be listening to music in a noisy setting (e.g., while driving in my car as I merge onto the highway before turning up the volume, or via headphones on a loud bus) and I'll think I'm hearing it in the right key, but when the song becomes clearer (either because I turn it up or the background noise diminishes), the key seems to modulate until I'm listening to the "right" key (i.e., the actual song as actually recorded). This tends to happen more often with songs I haven't heard before or don't know well - that is, songs where I'm not already sure of what they "should" sound like.

So my question - what exactly is happening in my brain when this occurs to make me hear a song one way and then correct it as I'm listening? (Or am I the only person this happens to?) I'm so curious. This has proven very tough to Google so I'd love any insight!
posted by Synesthesia to Health & Fitness (16 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: It makes sense — our perception of what key a song is in is based on all the notes we perceive in the music (as well as which notes are playing at rhythmically significant times) and many keys have notes in common, especially adjacent keys on the circle of fifths, so if you’re only hearing some of the notes but not all, your brain might “fill in” the missing notes incorrectly and perceive the wrong key.

Also, all instrument sounds have natural overtones, so in a noisy environment you might not be able to hear the fundamental frequency and only hear the overtones, so you would perceive a different note.
posted by mekily at 2:12 PM on July 27, 2020 [4 favorites]

I don't know, but something similar happens to me when I am listening to a song in one key, and a new track starts in a different key. The new song sometimes sounds dissonant for several seconds until my brain is able to re-calibrate to the new key.
posted by agentofselection at 3:08 PM on July 27, 2020 [2 favorites]

I'm gonna guess you are a trained musician? I do something similar with rhythm in a noisy environment, especially with club music. As a formerly-trained percussionist, sometimes my ear will hook itself to a secondary pulse that is very difficult to drop without some major statement on the 1.
posted by rhizome at 3:15 PM on July 27, 2020 [4 favorites]

I have no answer for you but this exact same thing happens to me.
posted by saladin at 4:04 PM on July 27, 2020 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I'm not a trained singer but I have good ability to pick up music from hearing it and this happens to me. I think the idea is that any particular note or even two or three notes could be in any number of keys, and the "context" is set by the other notes that you hear around it. (A music theory teacher or theory YouTube video could explain this better.) So if you can't hear all the notes because of road noise, or a previous song has set your expectations for what notes you expect to hear, your brain will fill in the blanks with what it thinks is the most likely key, until provided with conflicting evidence by hearing other notes further along (or getting in the groove of what your memory of that song sounds like).
posted by matildaben at 4:15 PM on July 27, 2020 [2 favorites]

I was considering doing a post because this happens to me, too in noisy environments where music is in the background. I've noticed that not only can instruments sound out of tune with each other, but they can sound out of tune with themselves, kind of like they're being run through a ring modulator and they aren't playing in coherent keys or modes. This can happen with songs I know, and I'll recognize rhythms or riffs, but they'll be all out of tune until I can get a clearer listen and then everything sort of clicks into place.

Sadly I have no insight why this happens, but it's really strange and interesting.
posted by 2N2222 at 4:38 PM on July 27, 2020 [1 favorite]

No insight here either, but I get such a kick when this happens to me. I wish I could do it intentionally.
posted by STFUDonnie at 5:02 PM on July 27, 2020 [2 favorites]

This happens to me as well, but I don't get the out of tune aspect, just different notes or different rhythms emphasized. What I imagine is occurring is similar to Electronic Voice Phenomenon, or the whole backmasking thing where a person is primed to expect to hear something and then picks it out from noise. Since noise contains so many frequencies, pretty much any frequency is there to be "noticed" by our brains if it's the one we anticipate.

I get a kick out of it when this occurs since it feels kind of like I'm composing music, but not really. What's really weird is that our brains are doing this essentially all the time, both with audio and visual input.
posted by subocoyne at 6:02 PM on July 27, 2020 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Casual musician here. Songs can also change keys, sometimes multiple times. The intro of "Come On Eileen" is in F major, the verses are in C major, and the verses are in D major.

Idk how much you know about music, but most modern western pop/rock music uses 4 chords. E.G. "Have You Ever Seen The Rain" is in C major so it uses C, F, G, and A minor. Those chords have common notes (see mekily's comment on circle of fifths) and interact in a way that is musically pleasing to our ears, so you may be hearing the G used in the C major chord (C-E-G) beause the car noise drowns out the C and the E, and go "hey this song's in G"! But it's really in C.

In my intro to music theory class a trillion years ago, lots of people had trouble with fifths like this. The prof would plonk B flat on the keyboard and tell us to sing it, and some people would sing an F. Perfect fifths are very stable!

ALSO, a couple of keys have some chords in common! F major is F, B flat, C, D minor. So you might hear the F and the C and go "aha, C major!" when it's actually in F.
posted by wintersonata9 at 6:07 PM on July 27, 2020 [2 favorites]

Best answer: There's also the concept of modes, which derive from a single scale and which note you start on.
posted by rhizome at 6:49 PM on July 27, 2020 [1 favorite]

Best answer: You also get this thing if the next neighbour over is having an annoying loud party, you can recognize the basic song, but the overtones are filtered through the resonances of the rooms they carry through, so the actual notes of the song can sound like different notes.

There's also the concept of modes, which derive from a single scale and which note you start on.

there's also Nodes, which are a funny aspect of psychoacoustics. Nodes are specific live spots and dead spots in a room where certain frequencies can seem to be either emphasized or fade out at random (but actually based on physics). It's part of why music recording studios often use not square angles in their walls.
posted by ovvl at 9:22 PM on July 27, 2020 [1 favorite]

Again, a sympathy post. I had this just the other day with white noise behind music and I couldn't pick out the key to sing along; and music videos on my phone sound like they're being sung badly if it isn't loud enough. I'd love to know why but I don't; but it's not just you that gets this.
posted by How much is that froggie in the window at 12:44 AM on July 28, 2020 [1 favorite]

I'm a trained musician and this happens to me too, as others have said I get a kick out of it! I'm sure it's that your brain is filling in the gaps with what you can hear vs what you think it should sound like. I've also had the rhythm/beat variant too. There are a couple of songs (can't think of examples right now) where I always get stuck on the wrong 1st beat at the beginning and then it's a weird world tilt when it all shifts in to place.
posted by Lotto at 1:34 AM on July 28, 2020 [1 favorite]

Best answer: In noisy environments, it's mostly the bass and low harmony notes that get lost. Mekily has it: a melody alone offers very many possibilities of harmonization. If you can't hear precisely what's going on, and you don't really recognize the melody anyway, your mind invents one of many possible harmonizations, until you raise the volume and hear what's actually going on. The moment when it says zoink in your brain is similar to realizing what's what in a trick drawing.

As a thought experiment, imagine only being able to hear the bass line of a song: (assuming it's tonal music) you would be much more secure about the key and harmonies, but you would have a lot of choices for filling in the melody.

That, and (also as Mekily says) some random filtering out of overtones instead of hearing the fundamentals; it's what tends to happen in a car, with all the rumble and wind hiss...
posted by Namlit at 2:08 AM on July 28, 2020 [3 favorites]

Best answer: To add to Namlit's comments, most players who are playing rhythm instruments like keyboard or guitar--the ones that are playing the middle to high pitch space of the piece--will omit the bass note from chords.

And on top of that, many common 7th, 9th, 6th, etc chords actually do sound like completely different chords in a completely different key, when the bass note is omitted.

Just a couple of simple examples (full chord on left => chord with bass note omitted on right):

Cmaj7 => E minor
Fmaj7 => A minor
Amin7 => C major
Dmin7 => F major
G9 => B half diminished 7th or maybe Dmin add 6

So (again, very simple example) let's say a song is in C major has a basic progression like Cmaj7 - Amin7 - Dmin7 - G9 - Cmaj.

Now cut out the bass line and suddenly this sounds like E min - C maj - F maj - B something 7 - E min.

Hmm, sure sounds kind of like something that is in E minor . . . .

That's just one of the type things that can happen if the bass line is missing. The base line is really your best, most reliable indication of where the tonal center of the piece is. Take that away and all sorts of different things can pop out.
posted by flug at 5:00 PM on July 28, 2020 [3 favorites]

Response by poster: Thanks so much to all of you - fascinating to learn more about what's happening! And cool to know that this happens for others as well. (And for those who wondered, I have some general education in Western music and can read music and [sort of] play the piano but it's not something I've studied much, so I appreciated those who shared their knowledge!)
posted by Synesthesia at 9:51 AM on July 29, 2020

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