#AskRCMScience: The Secret of Singing in Tune
"#AskRCMScience: Help, the holiday song season is approaching and I can’t sing in tune! What do I do?"
Holiday times are fast approaching, and that means falling temperatures, lights on everything, and ugly sweaters. It also means that people start listening to and singing seasonal songs. For some people, however, the prospect of singing in front of others brings about not joy, but terror. They’d rather hide with a hibernating bear than let others hear their singing voice.
Why is it that a certain portion of the population, despite their best efforts, do not seem to be able to sing in tune?
Almost everybody can match pitch
As a singer myself, I’ve always been interested in this question. In one of my first studies, we recruited people of varying abilities to come in to the lab, and measured how accurately they could sing back single notes. Some of them were quite accurate, and some of them were quite inaccurate. Next we asked the same people to match those same notes, in a different way. We gave them a slider that could adjust a computerized voice, and asked them to match the pitch with the slider, instead of their voice. As it turned out, with just a little bit of practice almost everybody could match the pitch on the slider with incredible accuracy — even those who could not do it with their own voice.
What this tells us is that out-of-tune singers don’t generally have any problems perceiving the notes in music — instead, their problem is one of motor coordination. Just as some people might be able to see quite accurately down a bowling alley, but not bowl a strike themselves, the same problem can arise with hitting a pitch.
In another experiment, we explored a different factor — timbre. We recorded people’s own voices. Later that day, we asked them to match those recordings. For this task, people were generally more accurate, but there were still some who couldn’t match the pitch accurately. This still points to a motor coordination problem, but it also shows that for some people, matching a real voice is easier than matching another type of sound.
Overall, we found that different poor singers had different types of problems:
- about 20% had motor-control problems, with poorer vocal coordination impairing them in all circumstances.
- close to 35% were fine when they were singing along with a voice, but ran into trouble singing with a different type of sound.
- 40% of our sample were good singers in any circumstance
- only 5% had real underlying perceptual problems that seemed to be causing poor singing.
So what does this mean for those of us who want to learn to sing better? It means recognizing that singing isn’t just in your head — it’s a physical act. And while there are some people who have a bit more and a bit less natural talent, like any other physical act, practice is the most important tool for improvement. Practicing in a vocal ensemble can be particularly useful, because singing with other voices can make the task a bit easier. But even singing on your own in the shower is a good start.
In my line of research, I hear stories all the time about people who do not sing now because in their youth they were asked not to sing, so that they wouldn’t “ruin” a performance. It’s infuriating, because not only are most children’s concerts not exactly an evening at the Concertgebouw anyway, but it’s exactly the opposite of what children need to do to get better at singing. Thankfully, most music teachers nowadays take a more enlightened approach, using a process- rather than performance-based teaching style.
But I have met people who have started singing with enthusiasm and happiness (and improvement) even after decades of avoiding it.
Singing is a joyful act, one reason it’s the centerpiece of so many religious and secular holiday traditions. If it’s something you’d like to be a bigger part of your life, well, then, give it a try!
 Ok, that might be exaggerating. But not much.
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While there are some people who have a bit more and a bit less natural talent for singing in tune, like any other physical act, practice is the most important tool for improvement.