Does Bette Midler sing off key or do I hear things differently?
May 12, 2022 8:54 AM   Subscribe

I've always thought Bette Midler sang slightly off key, and I've noticed it in other artists as well. Do I hear things differently than others? This is not an anti-Midler post.

Every time I hear Midler sing, I think she's just slightly off key. It's not unpleasant, but it feels a little weird to me. She's got such a famous voice, am I hearing something others do not? I've started noticing it in others. I just listened to the first track from Gaga's album Joanne -- Diamond Heart -- and I sense the same thing, and I know Gaga can sing on key, but in Diamond Heart it seems like she is trying to create a hollow effect with her voice, which she does often, and to me it comes off as slightly off key, but intentonally. Which is different than Midler, who every time I hear I think I'm crazy because she's off key.

Not bashing Midler here. I genuinely enjoy her as an entertainer and consider her one of the bad ass famous women of my lifetime, but I just can't shake this feeling that either I am hearing something differently than everyone else or maybe she's so famous now that no one cares because she is close enough? In some ways, she is like Madonna -- not a great voice but the whole package is what's the draw. Madonna's never been celebrated for her singing, but Midler has.

Sound and acoustic scientists, this question is for you!
posted by archimago to Media & Arts (19 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
That this kind of thing is nowadays perceived as a fault, rather than as the expressive device it undoubtedly is, is one of the reasons I've been saddened by the creeping ubiquity of autotune for a very, very long time now.

Rick Beato agrees to some extent.
posted by flabdablet at 9:20 AM on May 12, 2022 [13 favorites]

I have nothing concerning Bette Midler or Madonna but a couple other anecdatums. A close friend (from Hoboken!) puts Sinatra down, says he always sang off-key. Note that they're a computer science professor, not a musician. I remember loads of square adults saying the same thing about The Beatles when they were new. I wonder if these observations stem from a basic misunderstanding of what Jazz is.
posted by Rash at 9:25 AM on May 12, 2022 [2 favorites]

Fixing Led Zeppelin with Autotune - Adam Neely, YouTube, 17m23s
posted by flabdablet at 9:56 AM on May 12, 2022 [5 favorites]

It's worth asking: what is your musical training? Can you play any instruments (and tune them), or sing a melody (in different keys)? How is your ear? Can you call out an interval I play on piano, do you know the formal definitions of various major and minor scales and how to sing or play them with decent accuracy?

Because if you have great pitch detection and/or strong training, you may well be hearing subtle drifts of a few cents as "wrong note/out of key".

But if you don't, I'm tempted to say it's just your opinion of disliking the timbre of a given vocal performance, and "out of key" are the maybe-not-strictly-accurate words you choose to use to describe that impression of distaste. Pitch of sounds may seen like a simple thing, but when there are lots of frequencies at similar loudness, a sound can start to lose a well-defined pitch in the objective sense, let alone subjectively.

I just listened to that Gaga song and while I don't care for it, I am pretty sure she's singing in the same key as the instrumental accompaniment.
posted by SaltySalticid at 9:59 AM on May 12, 2022 [13 favorites]

Many (many) years ago, I spent several weeks in Hardwar, India. I would wake to what sounded to me like the weirdest sounds... music, morning prayers accompanied by instruments, whatever. The sounds filled the town at dawn. Those people heard music very differently than I did.

All this stuff is very subjective, and often culturally driven.

Sometimes the artists who sound different are breaking boundaries and helping us to find new ways to appreciate music.
posted by elf27 at 9:59 AM on May 12, 2022

Not an audio scientist by any means, but this is super interesting to me. Back in the days before autotune (80s) I was listening to a modern song with my Dad. He grew up in the 50s and 60s listening to folk and bluegrass. We were listening to some rock radio station or other. He said he didn't like modern music because the singers all used studio tricks to sound good. I had absolutely no idea what he was talking about, couldn't hear it at all.

Over the years as I've listened to different music from dfferent eras I've developed a better ear for these sort of tricks. I think his ear was trained by folk and bluegrass musicians, who had absolutely no studio effects, so that's what he was used to. I was used to listening to studio albums on the radio, which didn't have autotune but certainly had studio enhancements. Nowadays most music sounds overproduced to my ears.

I think maybe our ears just get trained to hear certain sounds as 'normal', and Bette Midler's tone and key just falls within a range of normal human diversity, that we don't hear as often anymore. Maybe your ears are just trained to perceive a narrower range of tones as normal?

But like I said I'm no expert, very interested to hear what others have to say.
posted by natteringnabob at 10:04 AM on May 12, 2022 [3 favorites]

Best answer: I'm a trained singer. There are a few things that cause a singer to sound flat even when that singer is perfectly capable of singing perfectly in tune: timbre, a lack of breath support, issues with a monitor, and (sometimes) just actually missing the pitch.

With timbre specifically, voice teachers use the term "hooded" to refer to a particular vocal quality where the sound seems to radiate from somewhere within. Darker, hooded timbres all kind of sound flat, and brighter sounds tend sharp. Darius from Hootie and the Blowfish 100% sounds flat to me all the time, while others say he just has a really dark tone (he does have a dark tone, but he's also flat).

Lack of breath support is often a thing at the end of a phrase. People have a natural tendency to trail off support after hitting the highest and/or most important part of a phrase (not always the same thing), and if you fail to keep your breath support up through the end of the line, you're probably going to at least sound a little flat as the tone resonates less well (see the first point), if not actually go flat a bit just because you're not concentrating enough. The very first "love" in The Rose sounds unsupported to me and it's a touch flat compared to the next one.

Issues with a monitor can be hard to diagnose. If you listen to, say, Wind Beneath My Wings, the very first sound you hear is a synthesizer that sounds like an out of tune piano run through a chorus effect pedal. If I had to sing along with that in my monitor, I'd sound out of tune too.

Lastly, sometimes singers really aren't on key. This can be on purpose (e.g. a blue note), or it could be that the singer's just not that good or the day in the studio was too long, or any number of other things.

As for Bette Midler herself I think she's 100% capable of singing in tune all the time and while I might pick on some points where she needs to concentrate more on supporting the whole phrase, I wouldn't say she sounds flat all the time, and she's definitely doing it on purpose sometimes (blue notes abound in, say, Rose's Turn or Miss Otis Regrets — notice when the backup singers come in everybody is 100% together, pitchwise, even on the bends). Hootie, though? Ugh. I have to leave the room.
posted by fedward at 10:14 AM on May 12, 2022 [38 favorites]

It is worth noting that equal temperament, which has become the standard for the tuning of most instruments in western music beginning in the 19th century, sacrifices the purity of certain intervals to make key changes easier. For the perfect fifth (seven semitones), this deviation from a "pure" or "just temperament" ratio of 1.5 is flat by a couple of cents (2^(7/12) = 1.498), but for other intervals, the deviation is somewhat larger. Singers who have a particularly fine sense of pitch (and who are not auto-tuned) may sing notes that are closer to the just temperament, which could conceivably make them sound verrrry slightly out of tune compared to the instrumentation.
posted by cubeb at 10:26 AM on May 12, 2022 [9 favorites]

(But as a caveat, I think it is more likely for most singers - even very famous and well regarded singers - to be a little bit off pitch for other reasons!)
posted by cubeb at 10:27 AM on May 12, 2022 [2 favorites]

Also, having now listened to that Gaga song in the opening she's 100% doing a thing with both vocal tone and blue notes that sounds like it's probably an intentional reference to one or two specific singers. I'm looking in the direction of Stevie Nicks or Emmylou Harris but it could be some other country or country-influenced singer from the 70s, and I don't know enough about Gaga to know her influences or childhood singalongs. Anyway. She's definitely doing a thing in that intro, it stops when the song starts to rock going into the chorus, and it comes back for the next verse.
posted by fedward at 10:42 AM on May 12, 2022 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: I'm in no way a trained musician so please forgive my misuse of the industry jargon. I've just always been curious about this.
posted by archimago at 10:47 AM on May 12, 2022

Midler is often flat. It's a deliberate style. Some people enjoy it. Patti LuPone does the same thing.
posted by The Underpants Monster at 12:16 PM on May 12, 2022 [3 favorites]

I think you might agree with my friend about Frank Sinatra? But I don't/can't hear it.
posted by Rash at 3:14 PM on May 12, 2022

Regarding Sinatra, always fresh in my mind is the point in "Strangers in the Night," toward the end, where the line is " love forever," where he loses the key completely and just trails down on random notes. Toward the end of his career he was such a legend that nobody gave a damn anymore.
posted by JimN2TAW at 7:02 PM on May 12, 2022

Fil of Wings of Pegasus has done a bunch of videos looking at various singers with pitch monitoring software. I dont know that he's done Midler but he has done Sinatra. The cumulative effect of watching several is that nobody's perfect but some singers are really good at hitting the notes.

Also, the simple concept of being on key is complicated by vibrato and other artistic techniques.
posted by SemiSalt at 4:47 AM on May 13, 2022 [3 favorites]

Trained singer here too. If it helps, I’ve always had that response to Midler, although I like her! One thing is that if you’re classically/operatically trained, and a soprano, belting is pretty much a no-no… so when I was a youth who was in coaching several times a week, I believed she literally sang “wrong.” You get older and you understand that there are different styles of singing, and other styles are valid; the classical style of vocal pedagogy is mostly aimed at avoiding long-term damage, but even that can be hard to get right.

All of that is to say that I can’t stand listening to Nina Simone because she sounds off-key to me, and the vibrato is really rough. Loreena McKennit, who is also widely loved, is the same for me — she can’t hit her high notes on pitch. Other people love them and that is fair and valid… Simone, in particular, is much more than vibrato and flatness. Something can be great for a lot of people, and worthy of respect in a general sense, and still not work for you.
posted by verbminx at 12:11 AM on May 17, 2022

I had a tough time at first listening to Chet Baker. I couldn’t figure out why and then figured out that the lack of (I think) vibrato was unusual to my ear. He doesn’t sound flat so much as planed smooth. Realizing this seemed to help, or maybe I just got used to his voice. FWIW I feel like Bette M. Is in control and makes a lot of decisions for expressive reasons that might not be everyone’s cup of tea.
posted by aesop at 2:52 AM on May 18, 2022 [1 favorite]

@aesop: In choral settings, people can be trained to sing with as little vibrato as possible. It’s especially common in the soprano and alto sections, where many directors will be trying to capture a “boys’ choir” sound in many of the pieces their ensembles will tackle. It takes a lot of control to do it, and it’s not the greatest thing for the singer’s long-term vocal health (my solo coaches were always very strongly against it, and my choral directors always demanded it).

Chet Baker’s style was similar, but I don’t know if it was for the same reason. “Planed smooth” is a good way to describe it.
posted by verbminx at 12:44 PM on May 18, 2022 [1 favorite]

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