Something that's off-key is out of tune or unmusical. If your jazz band is off-key from the first note of their first song, it'll make the audience cringe.

You might not care if your friends are off-key when they sing "Happy Birthday" and present you with a chocolate cake, but you may want to get your money back if you buy expensive tickets to hear an orchestra play off-key renditions of Bach and Beethoven. This musical meaning inspired the figurative off-key, meaning "not fitting" or "clashing": "The mayor's big-city values are off-key in our little village."

Definitions of off-key

adj inaccurate in pitch

false, sour
inharmonious, unharmonious
not in harmony

Sign up, it's free!

Whether you're a student, an educator, or a lifelong learner, can put you on the path to systematic vocabulary improvement.