Tuning Out Perfection: Embracing the Flaws that Make Music Human

Pitch correction in music strips away the soul of singing. Authentic voices, like Garland's, reveal the beauty in imperfections.

Tuning Out Perfection: Embracing the Flaws that Make Music Human

I was watching a video recently about how pitch correction has distorted our sense of voice to such a degree that we can no longer experience real singing. The video from the Wings of Pegasus channel notes (ha) the difference between Judy Garland's version of "Over the Rainbow" from a version by Kelly Clarkson, and the music expert conducting the review handily breaks down his detection of the post-processing that "corrected" Clarkson's voice.

This struck me because, a few months ago, I noticed something really funny while watching Star Trek: Strange New Worlds. I was watching it late at night on a Roku sound bar, and I had the "night listening mode" enabled so that the ridiculous sound design inherent in all modern media wouldn't wake up half the block.

And then, the cast started singing.

I'm a HUGE fan of musical episodes, with Joss Whedon's phenomenal work in Buffy and Dr. Horrible paving the way for a lifelong obsession. Even "bad" musical episodes are usually a hit with me.

Not so, for Strange New Worlds. But why?

Because, my Roku was stripping out all of the audio it considered "background" while it attempted to enhance and foreground just the actors voices. This sort of auto-processing did not, apparently, play well with the horrifically-corrected voices of several of the cast members, leading to the awkward feeling that I was observing something of truly extraterrestrial origin. The voice corrections used in that episode felt like a box of sharp blades to my ears, particularly uncomfortable without the surrounding din of the backup music to hide things away.

I remember reading an interview with some of the cast from Buffy a few years ago, about the "Once More With Feeling" episode that we all love so much. One thing stuck out for me: they were all terrified that singing in that musical would end their careers.

"Joss!" they said, "we're not professional singers!"

Some did have professional experience, like Anthony Stewart Head and James Marsters, but the rest of the cast? Not so much.

That wouldn't have been a concern for a modern show: Joss would have just said, "Don't worry, we can autotune you."

But, as the Wings of Pegasus that kicked this article off shows, it's actually the perfected nature of these corrective technologies that rids them of their humanity. Pitches that weave and dip, voices that have to struggle to find unique ways of overcoming limitations of nature and nurture, these are what make music beautiful. The more we "correct," the more we rid ourselves of what makes art meaningful.

As I wrap this up, I'm reminded of another Star Trek episode that featured music. In Voyager, the Doctor (an artificial "holographic" life form) starts singing in front of a group of snobby, technocratic aliens... who have never heard singing before.

This leads to a brief period of intense fascination from the aliens (and overwhelming egotism from the Doctor), but comes to an abrupt (and ego-crushing) end when the aliens invent a hologram with better pitch.

Despite a heartfelt final performance that moved the Voyager crew nearly to tears, the aliens were uninterested in the emotion - their search for perfection led them away from meaning into ever darker depths of technological fiddling. Perhaps that's our destiny as well... but I think not. An uncorrected voice will always hit me in the emotions more than one that's been distorted in perfection's name. Even if my ear isn't always keen enough to detect the truth, my heart will know the score.

Hi there! I’m Odin Halvorson, a librarian, independent scholar, film fanatic, fiction author, and tech enthusiast. If you like my work and want to support me, please consider becoming a paid subscriber for as little as $2.50 a month!

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