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Auto-Tune Technology in Music: Physics and Ethics Essay

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Updated: Jun 27th, 2020

Auto-tune is a technique for electronically correcting the impression given by a voice. It has the power to make an out of tune voice appear to the ear to be singing close to the correct note, but it is by no means a natural sound, as numerous amateur examples on the Internet demonstrate (Diamond). It has caused a great deal of comment and argument, with one current artist going so far as to record a song calling for the death of Auto-tune (N.A., Could Autotune Have Saved Michael Jackson’s Life?).

This 1980s era technology has become exceedingly widespread, with one estimate suggesting that the Billboard chart’s top 5 slots were occupied by Auto-tuned pieces over the course of 2008-2009 (Diaz). Another author suggests that every recording session includes it to some degree (Frere-Jones). It clearly is a species of false advertising, since it masks the deficiencies of a singer’s ‘instrument’ or skills. However, it offers those who were not blessed with fine voices the chance of show-casing their talents for writing lyrics or melodies.

Such opportunities are currently rather limited to an audience of tolerant family and friends. On the other hand, there is a risk that, as with the ubiquitous use of microphones, the use of Auto-tuning technology will cause the auditory appreciation capacity of the public to devolve further. There is a danger that the listeners will literally forget what a real, un-Auto-tuned voice sounds like, just as current young listeners have no clue what a truly trained and professional voice can do without massive amplification. The problem is more a matter of indifferent voices being promoted than the technology itself.

The Auto-tune technology was created by Harold Hildebrand, a geophysicist for Exxon. The basic idea grew out of his work on the translation of subsurface sound wave reflections into useful data. He left the oil industry and applied this technology to music. The human voice input was the equivalent of subterranean dynamite charges, creating a sound which could be processed, and then, through the wizardry of electronics, “tuned” to a nearby pitch. Hildebrand subsequently founded Antares Audio Technologies, and his product was commercially available as of 1997. As Diaz points out, this tool was the successor to the voice box and the vocoder.

However, unlike those, Auto-tuning retained more of the sound of a human voice (Diaz). It offered enormous convenience for artists who could not readily return to the recording studio to re-do a particular song or section of music (Frere-Jones). However, its use has expanded well beyond this application. More and more artists have acceded to the seductive temptation of having an entire song or album tweaked this way. Cher was one of the first in a 1998 recording titled “Believe”, described as sounding as though she is singing through the blades of an electric fan (Tyrangiel). The inventor is bemused by the use to which his brainchild has been put.

There is a range of possible settings, representing the length of time in milliseconds for the sung note to be tuned to the correct pitch. If this is set to zero, as it often is now in the industry, there is no delay at all in the transitions between notes, and this sounds like an artificially generated voice. At any setting, the Auto-tune effect makes a voice sound affected, at the least. In spite of the obviousness of its sound in a recording, and even more so in performance (Caramanca), the industry has behaved coyly, concealing its use. When used in moderation, it allows a singer to sound consistently correct in terms of note and rhythm (Tyrangiel).

However, the peculiar sound of overly Auto-tuned voices is unmistakable and not at all appealing to anyone who has grown up listening to real voices. Some feel that the technology allows singers to perpetuate fraud (N.A., Britney Spears Sings with no Music Track: Cover Your Ears). There are other, less intrusive, alternatives which could be used. A music producer can use the technique of playing the correct tune and the correct rhythm into the ears of less-than-competent musicians.

This public furor seems more to arise from the phenomenon (not by any means new) of inadequate singers being promoted entirely on the basis of their appearance and stage appeal rather than anything to do specifically with the technology, although it poses some risks. Consider: if Britney Spears possessed Susan Boyle’s voice (she is the recent winner of a British talent show), then there would be no need to Auto-tune Ms. Spears. Ms. Boyle needs no help with her singing at all. In its correct role, as an adjunct to a decent voice and good musicianship, Auto-tune seems harmless.

Opera singers and other real vocal musicians are unlikely to use it heavily, out of pride, if nothing else. However, even for an opera singer, is Auto-tune so different from stitching together several performances , in each of which different mistakes were made, in order to create a seamless whole? As noted above, Auto-tune offers the tin-eared and crow-voiced among us, who wish to sing their own songs without offending others’ ears, a practical and even financially accessible means of doing so. A real danger is that it will dissuade those who will not or cannot learn the techniques of good singing from ever opening their mouths to sound a single note.

It also has the very real danger of distorting the expectations of listeners. If everything in recordings or in heavily produced performances sounds pitch perfect and metronomically precise, then truly live performance will be less and less familiar, and the audience may lose the capacity to appreciate the immediacy and vulnerability of a live singer equipped with just their voice. Just as today we are deeply distracted by such irrelevancies as the state of a singer’s teeth, because we can see close-ups on TV, we may be distracted by real-life wobbles. This listener hopes and believes that there will be a return to good sense as the artificiality of Auto-tuned voices begins to grate on the public’s ear. Perhaps there will even be a return to an appreciation of singers for their voices rather than for the way they fill out a spandex costume. That is the outcome this listener roots for.

Auto-tune is a tempting technology, making up for all sorts of vocal vices, natural deficiencies, and sloppy habits, but it does not sound natural, at least, not as implemented today. It has the power to make an indifferent voice sound decent enough to get across the meaning of a song. It actually paradoxically points up the insufficiency of many current ‘voices’ by signaling that they were not good enough to stand on their own merits.

Its greatest threat to the world as we know it may be the way it trains the ear to expect perfectly pitched singing, with no wavers, quavers, personality, color, or idiosyncrasies. If today’s audience were an Auto-tune-weaned audience, we would not have had Willy Nelson (a singer without much voice), Johnny Cash (only in the neighborhood of the note), Frank Sinatra (he was often behind the beat), Bing Crosby (he slid into notes), or a host of other entertainers and song interpreters. Auto-tune can be a useful tool, but as a crutch, it is ultimately inadequate, because it reveals itself. If we focused on singers for singing and not for looks, we would not need it at all.

Works Cited

Caramanca, Jon. “Tornadoes of Anarchy and Auto-tune.” 2010. New York Times. Web.

Diamond, Kristopher. “Kristopher Diamond – Singing with and without Autotune.” 2010. youtube. Web.

Diaz, Joe. 2009. MIT. Web.

Frere-Jones, Sasha., 2008. The New Yorker. Web.


“Could Autotune Have Saved Michael Jackson’s Life?” 2010. thismusicsucks. Web.

Tyrangiel, Josh. “Auto-Tune: Why Pop Music Sounds Perfect.” 2009. Time. Web.

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