I am looking for adjectives/adverbs that express the quality and the extent to which the melody of a musical performance adheres to the prescribed composition.

For example, A4 has a frequency of 440Hz. But if somebody is asked to play or sing A4, the actual performance may result in a note with a different frequency. The greater the difference between the prescribed and the actual frequency is, the more unpure the sound it is.

So what are the correspondent adjectives? Just pure and unpure?

  • 2
    Especially if there are other notes sounding at the same time, one would say it is out of tune. In any event, it could be said to be sharp or flat. The opposite of pure, by the way, is impure, not "unpure."
    – phoog
    Dec 11, 2015 at 21:04
  • Also on pitch or off pitch.
    – MetaEd
    Dec 11, 2015 at 21:15
  • 1
    What about fidelity, or simply accuracy?
    – JHCL
    Dec 11, 2015 at 21:37
  • 2
    "Dissonant pitch" for impure. "Expected pitch" for pure.
    – Graffito
    Dec 11, 2015 at 21:46
  • 1
    Then most of the answers are good: off-key, out of tune, sharp, flat. Dec 12, 2015 at 11:55

3 Answers 3


"'Intonation,' in music, is a musician's realization of pitch accuracy, or the pitch accuracy of a musical instrument. Intonation may be flat, sharp, or both, successively or simultaneously."


Example: "His voice was gloriously clear, and his intonation was perfect."

Also, A4 has not always been pitched at 440Hz. During the Baroque period, for instance, it was pitched at 415Hz. Many modern Baroque ensembles use A4 at 415Hz in their performances. Here is an interesting article on its long history:


Used as an adjective: intonational.



As Mark Hubbard mentions, "intonation" is a musical term of art referring to accuracy of pitch. Somewhat unfortunately, it also has a variety of other sonically related meanings that may distract from that. For the lay reader, I might prefer something along the lines of "When he sang, his pitch was inaccurate." That is unlikely to be misunderstood.

Following off on another comment of Mark's, the upward push of A4 continues. Some orchestras, particularly European if I recall correctly, now push upward to 442 Hz, or 444 Hz. This can wreak havoc on owners of some older wind instruments; my wife plays flute and you can only push in so far to raise the pitch.

  • Can newer wind instruments raise the pitch more than older ones? I didn't think the design of flutes had changed any time recently. Dec 12, 2015 at 11:53
  • @PeterShor- I didn't study modern, open-hole flute long enough to be any good at it, but raising the pitch is possible using your embouchure alone if you are. OTOH, I paid dearly for a bespoke grenadilla Baroque-pitch recorder, as recorders are more fixed in their intonation than flutes. As for brass, with a good mouthpiece and a great embouchure, a trumpet can be played without even resorting to the use of valves, an astounding accomplishment for players of the period before valves became commonplace. I was unaware of a recent trend to push upward, Brian Tung, so thank you for mentioning it! Dec 12, 2015 at 15:20

Consider, on-key/off-key.

on-key: in tune; accurate in pitch; "a true note"

off-key: pitched higher or lower than the correct notes of a melody AHD

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