Flat vs Sharp

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If someone is singing badly we always say they’re flat, but at least some of the time (to my ear) they are actually singing sharp.

Why do we always say someone is singing flat, is it just convenient or is there a music theory reason for it?

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7 Answers

Anonymous 0 Comments

The simplest answer is the if you go a half step up from a note, it’s sharp. If you go a half step down, it’s flat. So the same note can be both sharp or flat, depending on what the intent was initially. Without knowing the intended note, it’s easiest to just say it’s flat.

This from a music adjacent person, I’ll let actual music people step in with a more detailed answer.

Anonymous 0 Comments

Personally I wouldn’t say they’re flat (below the correct pitch) if they were actually sharp (above the correct pitch). Sometimes it’s very difficult to tell when they’re close, so I might say they’re “pitchy”.

Also in my experience when it’s hard to tell which direction they’re off, they’re most likely a little sharp, but that’s anecdotal.

Anonymous 0 Comments

If someone is singing “sharp”, that means they’re slightly higher than the target note. If they’re “flat”, they’re slightly below.

>but at least some of the time (to my ear) they are actually singing sharp.

Well, our hearing is not perfect. Either you or the other person are making the wrong judgement.

Anonymous 0 Comments

Full time musician here. I agree with the previous comments and would add that in my experience this happens because a lot of musical terms (especially around singing) are conflated, used hyperbolically, or used synonymously (confused in meaning and switched, extremely exaggerated, or used to mean the same thing as another term) in English, especially amongst non-professionals. I think this is partly because of the nuance required to hear such subtle phenomena accurately, and often because of a lack of formal music education. In the US for example, many people don’t get any music education unless they pursue it privately, and if they do it’s at a very young age, focusing on more broad concepts.

In this case, “flat” is often used as a catch-all to simply mean “out of tune” or “pitchy” when it may actually be flat, sharp, lacking energy, or even just a dull sound (if the tone is too dark/not enough high frequencies cutting through).

Other examples of this are *octave* as in “You’re singing too low, take it up a few octaves and you’ll be on pitch”. Most untrained people can only sing 2-3 octaves comfortably so this is definitely an overstatement.
Use your *diaphragm* is kind of a catch-all meaning anything from sing with more power to breathe more deeply etc.
*Tone-Deaf* is a big one as well. Many people struggle to sing in tune (on the correct pitch at the correct time) and call themselves tone-deaf, but actual tone-deafness affects max 2-3% of people globally if memory serves. What’s usually happening is actually just someone who struggles to sing in tune because they don’t understand how to coordinate their voice with their breathing, maybe their voice isn’t warmed up, or maybe they’re listening for tone/color of the sound instead of pitch etc.

Hope that helps! Happy to clarify anything if needed; this is some pretty complex and confusing information and I can get overexcited talking about it. 😉

Anonymous 0 Comments

Music teacher here.

We’re generally able to hear when notes are flat easier than if they’re sharp. Not everyone, but because of the way we tune our instruments and chords and such, being a little flat can actually be a benefit.

In my experience it’s generally more common to go sharp, but that tends to have more of a “bright” feeling to a lot of folks rather than sounding just “out of tune”. In college I worked with elementary schoolers and did lots of ear training stuff with them, and they tended to respond more negatively to diminished quality chords compared to augmented, which means there could be some correlation.

Anonymous 0 Comments

“We” don’t always say someone is singing flat. Maybe you or people around you do, but the convention is to use words for what they actually mean. If someone is flat, say they’re flat. If someone is sharp, say they’re sharp. It’s entirely possible the people always saying flat just don’t know what they’re hearing.

Anonymous 0 Comments

It’s just a generalization because a singer tends to be flat more often than they’re sharp. I don’t know why that’s the case, maybe because higher pitches require more effort and we naturally under-exert ourselves?