What is the difference between being on key and on pitch?

What is the difference between being on key and on pitch?


Today I’m doing this video from Brooklyn, NY.  I’m visiting family here for the holiday season, approaching the New Year in a few days, and this afternoon I’m in my daughter’s apartment in Brooklyn.


So the backgound’s a little bit different. The video’s a little bit darker. I’ve got a candle for light and another lamp in front of me. So that does change things a little bit.


I hope you enjoy this video on singing on pitch and singing in key.


What’s the difference between being on key and on pitch?


I recently received this question.


What is the difference between being on key and on pitch?

Question:  “Can you please do a video on singing on key? I’m a beginner and don’t even know what this means. I understand what pitch matching on a piano is but not what singing in key is. So could you do a …video on this?  What is the difference between being on key and on pitch?”


Answer: People often use ” on key” and  “on pitch” interchangeably. Technically there’s probably a difference.


Western music is written and performed in different keys. For example, “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star” might be written in the Key of C Major. If, while you are singing, it was too low or too high, you can raise or lower the key. Up a whole step would be the key of D Major. Down a 1/2 step would be the key of B major.


The tune you hear would be the same, except the key is raised or lowered. In any of these Keys, B major, C Major or D Major, if you sing one wrong note, you would be singing in the correct key, but singing an incorrect pitch. If you miss several notes, you incorrectly sing several pitches. This creates a dissonance.


For example the key of C. [Demo] Key of C. Now if I sing the incorrect pitch in the Key of C it might sound like this. [Demo] So I got back to the key, but within that I missed several of the pitches.


Now I could sing, [Demo] So I sang again in the key of D but I missed a pitch or two there. Or I could sing it in the key of B. [Demo]. So I missed a pitch but I was singing in the key of B.


What is the difference between being on key and on pitch?

The pitch that is being played and the incorrect pitch you are singing fight against each other and it sounds wrong to the listener. If you only missed a few of the pitches, it could be said you were singing in the right key, but sang several of the pitches incorrectly.


If you sang all of the notes incorrectly so the listener couldn’t recognize the tune at all, it might be said: “the singer sang so off pitch I couldn’t recognize the tune or the melody, nor was there a recognizable key.”


For example if I said: [Demo] I wouldn’t recognize that as “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star”.


In other words, there were so many wrong pitches the key couldn’t be determined either.


On the other hand, if you missed several pitches but sang most of them right, it could be said, ” I could tell you were in the Key of C, but you were off pitch on several notes.”  


Key of C [Demo]  So we might recognize the key, but there were several pitches off.


You can be off pitch on several notes in any key.


Singing on the right pitch is important. Even marginal singers, if they can sing on pitch, can have a great career and huge numbers of fans.


But singers who miss the pitches don’t succeed.


Knowing your vocal type and singing on pitch is vitally important. Go to PowerToSing.com and take the vocal test which I call the PowerTest. Take the quiz and discover your vocal type. This reveals what you tend to do when you sing through the first bridge of your voice. For example if you tend to pull chest voice, your vocal type is Pulled Chest-High Larynx.


Go to the Knowledge Center and watch the videos about your vocal type. Download the free exercises and start practicing them.


If you do not sing them on pitch, you will not maximize the benefit from the exercises. You must be careful to match the pitches of the exercises with your voice gain the most benefit.


I’m Chuck Gilmore with PowerToSing.com. You can sing higher with beauty, confidence and power.


I’ll see you inside the next video.

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Chuck Gilmore

Chuck Gilmore

If you want to do more with your singing voice it is possible. This is the first and most important message. It is possible to achieve your dreams to sing better, to sing higher, and to add beauty, confidence and power to your voice!

I know this because I’ve experienced a real change in my voice. I am reaching my dreams to sing and perform. You can find happiness and fulfillment with your singing too!!


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  1. This is a very helpful comment Bill. Thanks for taking so much time to provide a great deal of insight!

  2. I think perhaps you should have also included a third term, the term “note.” Accordingly, and explained by me in different words, pitch is simply the fundamental frequency of a sound. Regarding notes, notes have assigned frequencies or pitches that correspond to their assigned names, like the name A4 or A above middle C, which is normally set equal to 440 vibrations per second. The frequency or pitch of a sound may be higher or lower than a pitch assigned to a note. In this case, it can be said that the note or sound is off pitch, and more precisely that is either sharp or flat. Regarding the term key, a song or a series of notes typically has a key that corresponds to a musical scale that best contains the collection of notes. Keys are named after the first note of the scale that contains the collection of subject notes. Selecting a series of notes that start on another note but retain the same intervals between each of them changes the key.

    Accordingly, if someone sings an incorrect pitch for a note and they actually sing the pitch for another note, it could be said that they sang the wrong note. However, if the pitch they sang did not match another note, then it can be said that they sang the note off pitch. In singing, one can sing the correct note on pitch, the correct note off pitch, the incorrect note on pitch, or the incorrect note off pitch. If the incorrect pitch is so far off pitch from any note, it would more likely be considered a pitch error rather than a note error.

    In singing, being precisely on pitch for every note is difficult even if all of notes are correct. That is why singing on pitch is a common topic of discussion. In contrast, on an instrument like a piano, the pitch of every note is pre-set by the proper tuning of the piano. Therefore, in playing an incorrect note on the piano, it would not be called a pitch error, but more appropriately a note error.

    The term singing off key is often used incorrectly for meaning that the singer is off pitch on one or more notes. However, the correct meaning of being off key means that the singer chose a different key than intended or used by accompaniment. Accordingly, a singer may be on key and on pitch, on key and off pitch, off key and on pitch, or off key and off pitch depending on whether the singer sang in the correct key and whether the singer sang all of the correct notes on pitch for the key in which they sang. However, singing in different key than the accompaniment and still singing all of the notes in that key on pitch would likely be highly improbable. More probable that a singer would be off pitch or off key and off pitch.

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