Can’t Sing? Keep At It, Practice May Be Key

Can’t Sing? Keep At It, Practice May Be Key

Fergies singing in Brisbane Mall-CC-Sheba_Also

If you’ve ever been told that you’re “tone deaf” or “can’t carry a tune,” don’t give up.

New research out of Northwestern University suggests that singing accurately is not so much a talent as a learned skill that can decline over time if not used.

The ability to sing on key may have more in common with the kind of practice that goes into playing an instrument than people realize, said lead researcher Steven Demorest, a professor of music education at Northwestern’s Bienen School of Music.

“No one expects a beginner on violin to sound good right away, it takes practice, but everyone is supposed to be able to sing,” Demorest said. “When people are unsuccessful they take it very personally, but we think if you sing more, you’ll get better.”

Published in a special February issue of the journal Music Perception, the study compared the singing accuracy of three groups: kindergarteners, sixth graders and college-aged adults. One test asked the volunteers to listen to four repetitions of a single pitch and then sing back the sequence. Another asked them to sing back at intervals.

The study showed considerable improvement in accuracy from kindergarten to late elementary school, when most children are receiving regular music instruction. But in the adult group, the gains were reversed — to the point that college students performed at the level of the kindergarteners on two of the three tasks, suggesting the “use it or lose it” effect.

Singing on key is likely easier for some people than others. “But it’s also a skill that can be taught and developed, and much of it has to do with using the voice regularly,” Demorest said. “Our study suggests that adults who may have performed better as children lost the ability when they stopped singing.”

By eighth grade, just 34 percent of U.S. students participate in elective music instruction — a number that declines throughout high school, says Demorest. Children who have been told they can’t sing well are even less likely to engage with music.

Better data could also be used to determine whether an inability to imitate certain pitches is linked to communication deficits or language impairments. Only a tiny subset of the population is truly tone deaf (a condition known as amusia), which means they can’t hear most changes in pitch. For these people, singing becomes difficult.

Teens and adults need to have low-stakes opportunities in music that don’t require the commitment of time that playing in a band or an orchestra does, Demorest added.

(SEE the full article by Julie Deardorff, Northwestern)

Photo by: Sheba Also (CC license)

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