Media > Science Has Great News for People Who Can’t Sing
June 10th, 2015

standard Science Has Great News for People Who Can’t Sing

Source: Getty Images

Source: Getty Images

Forget the middle school haters who shamed you into believing you were tone-deaf. A new study reveals that singing is more like playing an instrument than previously thought: Singing accurately is a skill that can be taught and developed. And that means that even the worst singers among us should just keep singing.

“No one expects a beginner on violin to sound good right away; it takes practice, but everyone is supposed to be able to sing,” Steven Demorest, the lead researcher behind the study, told Northwestern University. “When people are unsuccessful, they take it very personally. But we think if you sing more, you’ll get better.”

The study: Using three age groups — kindergarteners, sixth graders and college-aged adults — researchers asked each person to listen to a pitch and then sing it back. Researchers noticed a significant increase in accuracy from kindergarteners to sixth graders, likely because most kids that age have regular musical training at school.

Surprisingly, the adults performed at a level closer to the kindergarteners than the sixth graders; researchers now think that’s because singing has a “use it or lose it” quality to it. It’s like a muscle. And all that off-pitch singing only helps strengthen it.

“It’s a skill that can be taught and developed, and much of it has to do with using the voice regularly,” Demorest explained to Northwestern. “Our study suggests that adults who may have performed better as children lost the ability when they stopped singing.”

Just keep singing: According to the study, only 34% of kids in the U.S. past the eighth grade choose to participate in music classes of any kind; that percentage decreases as kids near high school graduation. Those dire statistics, combined with anecdotal evidence that many kids stop singing when they’re told they’re simply “tone deaf,” have convinced researchers that kids are dropping out of music education because they’ve been shamed into believing they’re simply no good.

That’s a real problem — and it’s depriving kids of important cognitive benefits. Music education has loads of scientifically proven benefits: It improves reading and verbal skills, raises IQ, helps in learning new languages, slows the effects of aging, betters memory, enhances self-confidence and so much more. Singing in particular has great physical benefits too. It’s an aerobic activity that increases blood oxygenation, improves heart health and exercises core muscles.

In short, singing — no matter how bad — is a good thing. In fact, it might just make you better. Don’t let the haters keep you down.

Kate Beaudoin (Music.Mic) / February 18, 2015

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22 Comments

  1. It is regrettable that the study is not better documented here, which could have lent more weight to the point being made. Nevertheless, based on a lifetime’s music teaching, including choir training, in schools, colleges and universities, as well as privately, with students from 5 – 75 years old I absolutely do not believe that ‘tone-deafness’ exists in individuals who have hearing within a normal range of acuity. I strongly believe that to tell any child or adult that they are tone deaf is damaging, unnecessary and untrue. Obviously some people sing better than others due to a wide range of factors such as physical characteristics, musical background and practice but in my, frankly, vast experience of teaching I have never met anyone whose singing could not be improved, with time and effort.

    1. Dear Sandy….I couldn’t agree more with you. I have many students, some of whom are incredibly talented and therefore demand a high level of teaching from me and I demand a great deal from them. Some come to me as a hobby, lessons are invigorating and still demanding, but the level is usually set at a lower bar. And some are almost, but not quite, beyond hope….What I call fractured voices that seem to have fallen apart. These are the most challenging, but they teach me a great deal about the practical science of the voice…..When we have managed, to both our surprise, to get them singing, our joy is palpable.

  2. Well..duh singing is just like any other instrument. You put hours into it, just like practicing scales on piano, and eventually you’ll be a good singer. I thought this was common knowledge?

      1. Oh I think it does- we’re all musical, or at least we all have the potential if we’re prepare to go looking for it.
        I’ve been teaching music for nearly 25 years, and my passion is teaching people to be musical. I have a Choir who can’t sing, but much more central to my teaching is the fact that children (and adults) need talent drawing out of them. ‘Talented’ musicians/sportspeople etc have gifts which find themselves naturally closer to the surface, but with training/practice, encouragement and knowledge we can bring out talents which initially might have been less evident.
        Please don’t shut those doors, it’s so final. With a determination to succeed we can surprise ourselves, but it’s the ‘I was born hopeless’ attitude which maintains the kind of myth which this article refers to.

  3. This “study” is basically useless. All they know is that the Kidnergardeners didn’t sing well, the 6th graders were decent, and the College students were worse than the 6th graders but better than the Kidnergardeners. There’s not enough information there to draw any conclusion. How many of the participants had vocal training in the past? How long ago was it? How well did that person or group sing in comparison to a control person or group that has no vocal training? How many of theses people were told they were “tone def” prior to this?

    What is the point of this study? The first half seems like it’s trying to prove that if you stop singing you get worse at singing. The second half focuses on why people stop singing in the first place. So what is this about, what happens when you stop singing or why?

    Also, it’s not like any of this information is new. It shouldn’t come as a shock that people who don’t sing or haven’t sung in a while aren’t as good as people who do. It also shouldn’t be a shock that singing well takes practice.

    One last thing, who did this “study”? There’s no link anywhere in the article to allow me to look at all of the data instead of just what you’ve mentioned here. It’s not even mentioned who the “study” was performed by. Right now it looks like about a study that may or may not exist that doesn’t give us any information the general public didn’t already have.

  4. Absolutely. I have said & taught this my entire life/career. To even suggest that another person cannot sing is the most vile expression of humanity. Whether a person or people have the inner balance and fortitude of character to recognize the beauty in the songs of others is the real “gift” or “talent”. The Creator (or whomever you believe is responsible for the “raw materials” of singing) does not make mistakes when creating. End of that argument. If someone is too _______________ (fill in any adjective you choose) to bask in the glory of another Being’s song, then it is he/she/them who needs to learn something… they must ask themselves what is wrong that they cannot appreciate another Being’s song and who the hell are they to pass judgement on something the Creator hath made? From that vantage point, can one begin to lovingly work with, nourish, nurture the spirit from whence the song comes so that that Being can confidently begin to shape the sounds to his/her choosing whether that be to sing louder, higher, rounder, sharper, brighter, what-have-you… to express their sound. To their own tastes. NOW… that doesn’t mean you have to like everyone else’s choices… but EVERY ONE CAN SING. It is a Human Right. In fact, it is a part of what has made and continues to make us human.

  5. No one should ever tell anyone not to sing! Do we ever tell a child who is struggling with their times table you are just not good at this,better not even try? No, we have them keep on working on it…because it is important. Singing is a very human way of expressing oneself–at everyage–even so called not so great voices can be wonderful mediums of emotion. Another thing–many voices change I am thinking of mens voices in particular–they have to keep practicing to be able to use the Instrument.

  6. I was a prodigy with perfect pitch who soloed with symphonies as a tike. My sister grew up to be the first female concertmaster of a major symphony. My brother is a cellist, my mom runs a Music and Arts school. I was told “You don’t have a voice” while growing up because I was so good at the piano, which, for the record, I was forced to practice to the point of ridiculous. I was not given one singing lesson – and yet, I sang reasonably well with no help. When I ditched Curtis Institute of music to sing, I found my “voice” in no time and was offered a huge career as a singer/songwriter which I turned down only because I’m a home-body at heart. I have made my living as a singer, vocal coach, and songwriter ever since. When people say, “I can’t sing. I wasn’t born with an awesome voice like you!” I just smile and say, “Nonsense. How about I show you how – then you go home an practice?” Many people don’t have a clue on how to sing a pretty vowel – and that’s really all that stands between them and a reasonably good voice. Sorry, but this is SO my territory, I had to say something. Thanks for this!

  7. Did EVERYONE in the study improve, or just some people in the group, raising the statistical average? I mean, you could take 50 opera singers and 50 earthworms, and training would improve the average performance. Hate to be a skeptic….

    Don’t understand me wrong. I’m all in favor of everyone singing. Just please not when I’m in the room.

  8. you know that people that can sing are born with that gift it is not something that can be learned…you either have or not ..simple as that …coming from a musical family

    1. I’m assuming you’re joking. People who have usable legs learn to walk, mainly by practising, whether or not they walk professionally, significant distances, or even just walk for pleasure. Likewise people who have vocal chords and can use them to speak can use the same vocal chords to sing – the muscles are there, in the same way as they are for professional singers, ‘singalong warblers’ or ‘only in the bath’ singers. Can anyone honestly say they’ve NEVER hummed along with a nursery rhyme, or the national anthem, or even voiced “Brrum brrum” to a toy car? That’s all singing. Some people are lucky enough to use those muscles to sing naturally. Others, including myself , who have sung all my life on my own or with some choir or other, need lessons from a teacher who understands how one can learn the use those muscles more effectively.

      The only thing that stops people who think that they can’t sing is their own brain, which unfortunately causes emotions and attitudes to influence the actual process of singing. Having sung all my life, to a varying degree, I was totally unable to sing for about 2weeks when someone humiliated me by saying, in front of the entire choir, that I was singing flat. ( In fact I was, but was already in the process of learning how to hear and control my voice, so I was rather sensitive about it).

      Lucky you, coming from a musical family, but England is probably one of the only, or few countries, who mocks people singing publically unless they are ‘licenced’ by the relevant qualifications. Have you ever witnessed whole African villages singing, without anyone opting out or just pretending? No more than you would witness anyone refusing to join in normal walking activity, because they’d been told they couldn’t walk even though they had working legs.
      Excuse me saying so , but , if yiu are serious, how can you dare to make such a ludicrous, mistaken and discouraging assertion?

      1. I totally agree with you! I sing well, as does most of my family. However, my youngest daughter (10) hasn’t been able to sing as naturally as the rest of us, and it’s hard for her to reproduce a pitch. We have done everything to encourage her, though, and she hasn’t stopped singing in the church choir, and sung with her school choir for a while too. She is definitely getting better. I know she will never be an opera singer, but she can get joy from it and continue to improve, I’m sure of it.

      2. As a musician I have a friend who’s been trying to sing for years and believes they’re getting better…I am as nice as possible but try to be honest. It’s hard when you really don’t see any improvement. I try to be as encouraging as possible but I do believe ‘tone-deafness’ can be a thing that is simply more prevalent in some people than others.

      3. Your comments are ‘right on’, as they say. Singing, just like tennis and golf, is a muscle-memory process. A key problem is that most of the sound detail leaving your mouth never reaches your own ears, so without HearFones(R) it’s terribly difficult to learn the correct process for each sound you wish to create. The same is true for learning to speak fluently in a ‘foreign’ language — the teacher sounds the word, and you try to mimic it, but without the accuracy of feedback using HearFones it is simply VERY difficult. Imagine hitting a tennis ball with bad eyesight and then getting verbal corrections after each try . . .

    2. Not true. I taught in the middle school for years as a choral teacher and vocal coach. There were a few kids who came to me not matching pitch at all at first, but who worked like the devil to improve and became really good singers. They were determined, worked hard, and had a persistent and patient experienced teacher. :-)

    3. I have been a voice teacher and choir conductor most of my life. I am now in my 70s. I believe that people are born with the gift to sing – that gift is vocal chords and ears. I have always been a proponent of the belief that, unless there is a physical defect in either the vocal mechanism or the ears, anybody can learn to sing.

    4. Not true! I am a public school music teacher. I’ve seen a large amount of “tone deaf” students enter my program and with persistence and training excel as vocalist. Several have gone on to sing in community theater or collegiate groups! That’s a huge feat since several started out without the skill to even match pitch! I’ve learned that anyone who has the will can learn to sing and sing with skill. I’d rather have a student with a desire to sing than a student with tons of “natural-born talent,” because someone who desires to sing has the work ethic and the willpower to surpass the student “just born with it.”

    5. esther, it’s not compelling to start your counter-claim with “you know that I’m right.”

      No, no I don’t. As a life-long music educator, I profoundly disagree with you. Anyone can sing. What counter-evidence can you present to refute this study mentioned in the article?

  9. I was one of those middle schoolers that was told. Please don’t sing, you are tone deaf! Being a musician already… I played piano and clarinet, I decided that I could practice my way out of being tone deaf. I mean, I knew I was singing off key, so I wasn’t really tone deaf right? My poor parents had to listen to me for months, before things started to get better. My senior year of high school I finally auditioned for choir. I not only got in, but got in the top choir at our school. I participated in UIL and went all the way to state. I got a 1 at solo and ensemble. From there I went to college as a music major on a choir scholarship. Fast forward, I have been teaching voice and piano for 12 years, and have sent many children off to be voice majors in college. I am soon to begin my masters of music in vocal performance, so that I can teach at a university. Determination can get you very far in life. Yes I had a talent for music in general, but singing was not my forte!

    1. That’s great! I wish my daughter could hear when she’s off — though she’s improving, as I said above, she has a hard time hearing when she is off.

  10. I do so agree that singing is more skill than most people realize! I have been a choral singer and church cantor for many years, and cringe somewhat when people compliment my “talent,” although I just smile and say thank you. But my voice is really not that great. I have had a grand total of one group voice lesson. But I know how to sing on pitch, manage my breath, and sing with meaning. I think most people have the ability to sing as well as I do – but they are intimidated and don’t realize it. However . . . I am really troubled by your use (twice) of the term “haters.” I think it is really over the top in this context and in general, overused nowadays. It imputes real malice where something – granted, not good, but – less than that is going on. In other contexts, I hear it applied to people who simply have a difference of opinion that someone doesn’t like. Let’s save it for when it really fits.

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