Online singing test gauges accuracy of pitch

Feb 13, 2017

If you watched the Grammy Awards Sunday night, perhaps it inspired fantasies that one day you might march on stage and accept an award for your singing. Or maybe not.

Still, Psychology Professor, Peter Pfordresher  is convinced many people are more adept at hitting the right notes than they give ourselves credit for.

Dr. Peter Pfordresher is a psychology professor at the University at Buffalo.
Credit Peter Pfordresher/University at Buffalo

“I have a feeling that there are a lot of people out there that misjudge how accurately they are singing, or are too hyper-critical of themselves,” Pfordresher told WBFO.

Back in 2013, at a workshop in Seattle, researchers devised a matrix for measuring pitch accuracy. Pfordresher, an amateur singer with an interest in music education, collaborated with Steven Demorest to create an online test of what is now called the Seattle Singing Accuracy Protocol.

“The online measure is set up so it can measure the accuracy of singing while the person is going through the tasks,” Pfordresher said. “There is an automated scoring procedure... That way, the person who uses this test can see right when they’re finished how accurately they are performing on all these tasks that we give them.”

Pfordresher noted that one goal of this online tool is to make the assessment fast and simple.

“From the scientific community, there were a couple of previous tests that were not available online for the general public and were very long. Our test takes just about 15 to 20 minutes."

But here's the thing:  even if a person has excellent pitch accuracy, it  doesn't necessarily mean the singer will ever snare a Grammy. Pfordresher often uses an example from season 3 of American Idol back in 2004, when one contestant captured the nation's attention.

“If you take William Hung’s recording of ‘She Bangs’ and you play it alongside Ricky Martin’s recording, you will hear that his pitch is right on. So in that sense, William Hung might be more accurate than Ricky Martin because William Hung matched pitched without an accompaniment and without any digital editing,” he said.

If that’s the case, why was Hung laughed off the stage by the judges and branded by some as one of the worst auditions in Idol history? Pfordresher noted that there  is more to singing than just hitting the right notes.

“The issues with William Hung may have more to do with subtler stylistic characteristics,” he said. “The subtle rhythmic nuances of how he sings, and the kind of subtle sense of swagger that is in the original interpretation of the song may be more missing from William Hung’s performance.”

Pfordresher is hoping the research will help many people to make better music and encourage them to spend less time listening to  the "sanitized" voices that are packaged for a wide audience.

“We hear digitally edited voices on the radio from people who devote much of their lives to singing, rather than hearing our friends and neighbors sing. Eventually I would like to see a world where we do more singing with each other and less just listening to the radio and these digitally edited voices,” he  said.