#2 The truth about Madonna`s live singing disaster at the ESC 2019

Today's Eurovision Song Contest got cancelled. Why did Madonna sound that much out of tune last year? Review by a professional vocal coach.

It is 2019 and Madonna is the main act on the ESC. At the live show she sounds so much out of tune that even people without a musical ear can hear it. What went wrong? Until today there are no plausible explanations available as far as I am aware of. Therefore, since the ESC is cancelled this year because of Corona, I will add my view today. Let's learn from the past?

Madonna sings out of tune?

To begin with: there are 2 versions of her performance. There is the bad quality "someone filmed it from the television and put it on youtube" original version, besides the afterwards corrected official ESC version on youtube - just for your information. So let's speak about the original version. I personally think that especially in the period of the musical "Evita" (1996) Madonna had voice training and with all her musical experience she would not sing over 100 cents out of tune.

What are Cents?

Quick brush up for people that are not intonation nerds: 100 cents equivalent a half tone, like from one key on the piano to the next one (including black keys). A professional singer stays in a range of about plus or minus max. 30 cents. A person with absolute hearing in plus or minus 10 cents. An amateur in plus or minus 50 cents. In general people don't jump all over the range. A professional for instance could hang somewhere between minus 10 and plus 20.

What do our ears expect?

The ears of the general listener don't recognize a tone out of tune when the range in itself is small enough. Which means if someone sings between minus 20 and minus 40 cents constantly and does not make jumps to plus 10, the general listener will not notice this as 'out of tune' although theoretically this would be out of tune.

The risk of live tone correction

So let's get back to Madonna. During her performance there were tones in her melody that suddenly totally jumped out of the melody and sounded very wrong.

My explanation to this phenomina ist the use of live tone corrector programs. Since these are common use in studios and I have seen and worked with them too, I also know the annoying lacks they have.

The program can be set that it puts a tone exactly or within a certain range 'in tune'. The thing is, if someone sings more than half a tone (100 cents) out of tune, the program will correct it in the other direction. So instead of for instance putting a tone which has been sung minus 55 cents back to zero, it flips it to minus 100 cents. Which is a half tone lower than needed. Which sounds terrible and in a recording studio needs to be corrected manually.

So Madonna's live correction program flipped some of the tones that she sung over 50 cents out of tune to the opposite direction. This caused these really weird sudden totally off parts of melody that also the average listener declares as 'wrong'.

Why did she sing more than half a tone out of tune?

The song she started with had an unclear start, church bells and choir, when it comes to tonality and rhythm. In the first tones of the melody we shortly hear 2 voices (in the ESC corrected version too). Most likely her voice and a ghost track with the 'pick up' melody. (ghost track: voice on the background track with the main melody). So, this helped her very well to get into the song with the right intonation. After this she most likely just had the normal background track of her song and her own voice in the in-ear monitoring. So church bells and a choir are not sufficient for singing in tune during a highly professional performance.

How to improve for next time?

Setting 1: It is possible that the ghost voice we hear in the beginning continued during the performance, just not hearable for the audience. Usually when you sing yourself and are hearing yourself with a monitor (does not matter external or in-ear), you won't be able to hear anything in the same frequency. So if using a ghost track, put it an octave higher and you'll hear it just perfectly, besides that you can differentiate your own voice, which is needed for staying in tune.

Setting 2: the ghost track did not continue. Just don't use church bells (which are already out of tune in itself) and a multi voices choir as a background track for yourself! The background track does not have to be the same as the track the audience is exposed to. So, by all times, have a background track with clear rhythm (percussion etc.) and fully in tune instruments not interfering with your own melody frequency: electrical instruments like electrical piano, synthesizer bass & guitar. Voices need to be an octave higher than your main voice and already prepared 100 percent corrected of course. Or just something instrumental doubling the main melody an octave higher. Note: an octave higher because female singers have a hard time to process lower frequencies.

The benefits of singing slightly out of tune

Still it is very cool that Madonna seems to sing live after all. It would even be ok to hear her sing a bit out of tune. It makes a singer sound authentic. Singing a bit out of tune also has the effect that it is being experienced by the audience as if lots of emotions are involved.

My advice to all performing singers and Madonna: don't try to sound perfect by live computerized correction. Stay authentic and touch people with your emotion and performance...And adjust your background tracks properly ;)

ESC corrected version to check the ghost track melody entrance:


Next video: Can you hear the differences between before and after correcting her performance?


„Dare to share“ question:

How do you make sure that you sing as much "in tune" as needed?

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