Partner Series
What's Pitch?
Credit: Jessamine | Dreamstime

American Idol's judges, such as Randy Jackson, never seem to get tired of bantering those less-gifted singers with phrases like, "that's a little pitchy."

It turns out that it means exactly what you may have guessed: "Pitchy means out of tune," said Elizabeth Marvin, professor of music theory at the University of Rochester in New York.

Musicians, especially pop singers , typically sing along with instruments that are tuned such that each note corresponds to a frequency, or pitch, Marvin said.

Sound is transmitted in waves, and each note on a music scale differs from the others in the frequency of its waves waves that are closer together have a higher frequency than waves that are spread farther apart.

Wave frequencies can be measured in hertz (Hz), a unit that indicates the number of cycles per second; a 50-Hz wave has a frequency of 50cycle per second.

Each musical note has a unique frequency. For example, the A note is 440 Hz, while G is approximately 784 Hz.

If, while singing, a singer produces sound waves that are slightly above (sharp) or below (flat) the expected pitch, the judges call it "pitchy," Marvin said.

Got a question? Email it to Life's Little Mysteries and we'll try to answer it. Due to the volume of questions, we unfortunately can't reply individually, but we will publish answers to the most intriguing questions, so check back soon.