Research Article|Articles in Press

The Key to Singing Off-Key: The Trained Singer and Pitch Perception Distortion

  • Sarah R Kervin
    Address correspondence and reprint requests to Sarah R Kervin, New York University, Department of Communicative Sciences and Disorders, 665 Broadway #9, New York, NY, 10012
    New York University, Department of Communicative Sciences and Disorders, 665 Broadway #9, New York, NY, 10012

    Grabscheid Voice and Swallowing Center, New York Eye and Ear Infirmary of Mount Sinai, 380 2nd Ave, 9th Fl, New York, NY, 10010
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Published:January 31, 2023DOI:



      Pitch perception distortion (PPD) is a novel term describing a phenomenon in which an amplified, accompanied singer's perception of their sung pitch relative to band or accompaniment becomes ambiguous, leading to one of two conditions: a) the singer believes they are out of tune with the accompaniment, but are in tune as perceived by a listener, or b) the singer believes they are in tune with the accompaniment, but are not. This pilot study aims to investigate the existence and incidence of PPD among amplified, accompanied performers and identify associated variables.


      115 singers were recruited to participate in an online survey, which collected information on musical training, performance environment, and PPD experience.


      Reported PPD incidence was 68%, with 92% of respondents indicating that PPD occurred rarely. The factors reported as most associated with PPD experiences included loud stage volume, poor song familiarity, singing outside one's habitual pitch range, and singing loudly. Contrary to previous studies and our hypotheses, no association was found between modality of auditory feedback (e.g., in-ears versus floor monitors) and incidence of PPD. Additionally, higher levels of training were found to be associated with higher incidence of PPD.


      The reported incidence supports that PPD exists beyond chance and anecdotal experience. In light of the highly trained sample, the data suggest that pitch accuracy in accompanied, amplified performance may be more associated with aural environment–specifically loud stage volume–and a highly trained singer's tuning strategy in response to that environment rather than a singer's mastery of vocal intonation skills in isolation. Loud stage volume was implicated as a primary factor associated with PPD, which may be related to the stapedius reflex. Future investigations will target attempted elicitation of PPD in trained singers after establishing baseline auditory reflex thresholds and objective measurements of intonation accuracy.

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