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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  1. 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.

  2. 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.

  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. 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.

  5. 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.

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