The Tune Wreckers

Lousy singers make a pitch for scientific relevance

Sean Murphy/Getty Images

Strange things happen when bad singers perform in public.

SONG WORKS | The anatomy of singing is a bottom-up affair. Vocalization begins with the diaphragm assisting the lungs in pushing air through the trachea to the larynx. There, the vocal cords chop up air to make musical sounds that are refined as they proceed to the mouth. Source: Mayo Clinic; adapted by E. Otwell
SLIDING UP In one study, musicians and nonmusicians accurately recreated musical pitches (left) with a hand-held device called a slider. Singing a just-heard pitch (right) was tougher, especially for nonmusicians. Source: S. Hutchins and I. Peretz/J. Exp. Psychol. Gen. 2012
KEY NOTES | Each key on a piano, including those shown here, corresponds to a specific frequency (shown in hertz) at which a sound wave vibrates. Through cultural and other subjective influences, people learn to hear these frequencies as higher or lower pitches on a musical scale. DyMax/Shutterstock
MISSED PITCHES After hearing ascending musical notes through headphones, people with typical musical abilities usually sang those notes nearly in key (top). A volunteer with amusia, or tone-deafness, sang the same notes consistently off-key (bottom). The scale bars show pitch differences in cents; 1,200 cents typically equals one octave. Source: S. Hutchins et al/J. Acoust. Soc. Am. 2010

Comedienne Roseanne Barr was widely vilified in 1990 after she screeched the national anthem at a major league baseball game. College student William Hung earned worldwide fame and a recording contract in 2004 with a tuneless version of Ricky Martin’s hit song “She Bangs” on American Idol. Several singers at karaoke bars in the Philippines have been shot to death by offended spectators for mangling the melody of Frank Sinatra’s “My Way.”

For all the passion evoked by pitch-impaired vocalists, surprisingly little is known about why some people are cringe-worthy crooners. But now a rapidly growing field of research is beginning to untangle the mechanics of off-key singing. The new results may improve scientists’ understanding of how musical abilities develop and help create a toolbox of teaching strategies for aspiring vocalists. Glimpses are also emerging into what counts as “in tune” to the mind’s ear. It seems that listeners are more likely to label stray notes as in tune when those notes are sung as opposed to played on a violin.

Running through this new wave of investigations is a basic theme: There is one way to carry a tune and many ways to fumble it.

“It’s kind of amazing that any of us can vocally control pitch enough to sing well,” says psychologist Peter Pfordresher of the University at Buffalo, New York.

Still, only about 10 percent of adults sing poorly, several reports suggest (although some researchers regard that figure as an underestimate). Some of those tune-challenged crooners have tone deafness, a condition called amusia, which afflicts about 4 percent of the population. Genetic and brain traits render these folks unable to tell different musical notes apart or to recognize a tune as common as “Happy Birthday.” Amusia often — but curiously, not always — results in inept singing. Preliminary evidence suggests that tone-deaf individuals register pitch changes unconsciously, although they can’t consciously decide whether one pitch differs from another.

More often, new studies suggest, bad singers hear music just fine. Some can’t control their singing voices or align what they sing with what they’ve heard. Others mistake different sound qualities, or timbres, of voices and instruments for different musical pitches. For them, trying to sing along to someone else’s voice — or to, say, a piano — quickly degenerates into an off-key fiasco. An inability to tune up one’s voice by first imagining music in the mind’s ear can also instigate karaoke catastrophes.

Adding to the cacophony, some tune wreckers can’t remember recently heard melodies or even a few musical notes. Scientists are searching for better ways to determine how these and other factors turn singing sour.

“It’s hard to measure precisely what a singer is doing,” says psychologist Sean Hutchins of Rotman Research Institute at Baycrest Hospital in Toronto. “Unlike playing a piano, the vocal mechanism is stuffed inside our throats.”

Missed pitches

Singing, like speaking, begins when the lungs expel air. In the larynx, or voice box, two fleshy folds — the vocal cords — chop the lungs’ output into vibrating air pulses that make sounds with different pitches. The vocal tract — a resonant chamber leading from the vocal cords to the mouth — then provides each sound the additional characteristics of a sung voice.

Each person develops a sense of pitch, a sound’s position on a musical scale. Pitch is closely related to, but not the same as, the frequency at which a sound wave vibrates. It’s a subjective impression, based not only on sound frequencies but also on family, peer and other cultural influences. The full experience of a musical tone depends on its pitch, duration and loudness.

Researchers have for decades studied acoustic features of professional vocalists’ voices, such as the range of notes that they can sing in tune. And music educators have a long-standing interest in figuring out why some people sing in droning monotones. Until the last decade, though, determinations of singing proficiency relied mainly on ratings by seasoned musicians.

Now scientists can measure precise acoustic properties of different musical pitches, such as a G and a C, and assess how close volunteers come to singing those tones after hearing recordings of them played alone, in sequences of notes or in melodies. This task is called pitch matching.

Recent studies indicate that 85 to 90 percent of nonmusicians, and even higher proportions of musicians, accurately imitate single musical pitches, two- to five-note patterns, and unfamiliar as well as familiar melodies. Most participants also sing well-known tunes in key, purely from memory. In these investigations, singers are considered in tune if, on average, they overshoot (sing “sharp”) or undershoot (sing “flat”) intended pitches by less than a semitone. (In Western music, a semitone is the minimum distance between two pitches. A semitone represents the acoustic distance from, say, F to F sharp.)

Using the semitone standard, roughly 10 to 15 percent of the population sings badly, says psychologist Simone Dalla Bella of the Montpellier 1 University, France.

Some singing tasks are harder than others, Dalla Bella notes. Volunteers have a tougher time singing three ascending notes they’ve just heard than singing “Happy Birthday” accurately from memory. In 2010, a study directed by Pfordresher found that more than half of participants couldn’t consistently sing the same pitch accurately on repeated attempts. Volunteers overshot and undershot the vocal mark in scattershot fashion.

Hutchins suspects that far more people qualify as bad singers than estimated by Dalla Bella. Given a stricter half-semitone leeway, 25 of 53 musically untrained volunteers regularly sang just-heard musical notes out of tune, Hutchins and University of Montreal colleague Isabelle Peretz reported in 2012.

Even consummate crooners sing slightly off-key, but listeners usually don’t notice. Sung notes sound like clunkers only when they miss the mark by a half-semitone or more, says music educator and researcher Steven Demorest of the University of Washington in Seattle. Hutchins and Peretz may be right that poor singers have been undercounted, Demorest says. 

Sliding scales

Hutchins and Peretz ferreted out different kinds of bad singers by giving volunteers a novel gadget that produces voicelike sounds by touch. In a series of experiments, musicians and nonmusicians tried to reproduce synthesized, human-sounding musical tones with their own voices and with the finger-controlled device, dubbed a slider.

The slider consists of a touch-sensitive strip running along the top of a keyboard-shaped, 38-centimeter-long base. Pressing on the strip generates a musical tone. Moving a finger to the right or left along the strip gradually raises or lowers the tone. A slider’s musical range covers an octave, a standard eight-note scale corresponding to “do-re-mi-fa-so-la-ti-do.” Male volunteers used a slider that produced a lower octave than the device given to females.

Both musicians and nonmusicians recreated pitches more accurately with a slider than with their voices, indicating that they heard the difference between musical notes even if singing those notes proved elusive.

Pitch-matching skills varied widely among nonmusicians. More than one-third of them accurately sang synthesized tones in at least 90 percent of the trials. But almost half sang off-key around 50 percent of the time.

Poor singers of both sexes imitated the pitch of their own recorded voices much better than the pitch of synthesized tones. The sound of a familiar, controllable voice apparently helped these individuals tune up, Hutchins suspects. He thinks a singer’s own voice was perceived as being in a different pitch than a slightly different-sounding synthetic voice, even if both voices were singing in the same pitch.

“These people may have more problems singing along with a piano or another musical instrument than with a chorus,” Hutchins says. Vocal teachers might have such students sing along with recordings of their own voices rather than piano tunes, he suggests.

Off-key imaginations

One common technique used by voice instructors is to ask students to imagine the sounds of particular notes and melodies before singing them. That makes sense, Pfordresher says, given recent evidence that thinking of sounds activates brain areas involved in making sounds.

“Poor singers may fail to generate the kind of vivid auditory images that can be used to plan vocal actions needed for singing accurately,” Pfordresher proposes.

In support of that idea, he and psychologist Andrea Halpern of Bucknell University in Lewisburg, Pa., found that poor singers often, although not always, report hearing little in the mind’s ear. But people who sing in tune tend to report having sensitive inner ears for music, the researchers reported in the August Psychonomic Bulletin & Review. Good singers said, for instance, that they can vividly imagine hearing a trumpet play “Happy Birthday” and can mentally transform a choir of children into a choir of adults in an instant.

Anti–American Idols

Unlike William Hung and other wannabe pop stars with delusions of musical talent, most people — competent crooners and tune wreckers alike — think of themselves as lousy singers.

“In our culture, a good singer is usually assumed to be someone like Beyoncé, so we tend to view ourselves as bad singers, even if we’re not,” says Demorest.

Oddly enough, even some tone-deaf individuals who insist that their singing stinks actually carry tunes pretty well. One such woman contacted Hutchins and Peretz because she was certain her neighbor had amusia. The woman said she had no musical aptitude but liked to sing around the house, despite how terrible it sounded. Yet the wacky neighbor kept complimenting her singing.

As it turned out, the neighbor was right. Testing confirmed that this woman sang in tune but didn’t realize it. She has a form of amusia that has gone largely unstudied.

In the April Brain & Language, Hutchins and Peretz reported that four of nine tone-deaf volunteers sang back recorded musical notes as accurately as nine participants without amusia. Amusiacs who had singing chops adjusted their voices in the correct direction as recorded pitches — either sung or spoken — were digitally tweaked up or down, sometimes so slightly that even volunteers without amusia weren’t aware a pitch had shifted. But the decent tone-deaf singers still overlooked musical pitch changes that were obvious to individuals without amusia.

“Brain mechanisms for pitch production and pitch perception may be largely different,” Hutchins says.

In many cases of amusia, both brain systems malfunction, he proposes. A pathway supporting the act of singing survives in other cases, sparing the ability to carry a tune and to react instantly to subtle pitch changes in another person’s voice.

Related research led by neuroscientist Psyche Loui of Wesleyan University in Middletown, Conn., and by Peretz, indicates that amusiacs’ brains register musical pitches unconsciously. Their brains show no activity indicating conscious awareness of those pitches.

Preliminary evidence suggests that tone-deaf individuals forget melodies shortly after hearing them, adding to their musical woes, Dalla Bella says.

Schooled to sing

Scientists hope that insights into tune wreckers of all stripes will lead to improved techniques for teaching people how to sing. Currently, there is no standard method for making pitch-challenged adults more melodious, Demorest says.

Encouraging children to sing before they grow up and out of tune may hold the most promise. In the United States and other Western nations, around 40 percent of 7-year-olds have difficulty carrying a tune, says music educator Graham Welch of the University of London. That figure falls to roughly 10 percent by age 11 and to no more than a few percent among children who participate in classroom singing programs throughout grade school.

“Once you have developed singing skills as a child, they tend to stay with you, particularly for girls,” Welch says. Unlike boys, girls don’t have to readjust to a dramatically lower voice during adolescence.

Welch headed a research team that evaluated the singing development of nearly 10,000 primary school students, ages 5 to 12, in England from 2007 to 2010. About 70 percent of the children attended schools participating in a national singing instruction program called Sing Up.

In those schools, kids attended classes where teachers led students in singing games, voice exercises and sing-alongs of simple tunes.

Sing Up participants sang as well, on average, as youngsters who were two years older but received no instruction. Younger children benefited most from singing classes: 5-year-olds in Sing Up sang as well as 8-year-olds outside the program.

Although researchers have long reported that girls sing better than boys throughout childhood, this sex disparity largely disappeared among Sing Up participants, Welch says.

Babies and toddlers around the world experiment with the pitch of their voices and play singing games with their parents (SN: 8/14/10, p. 18). Those who do so regularly are likely to enter school with a basic mastery of their voices, Welch asserts.

Sadly, many adults interviewed by music researchers in North America, the United Kingdom and Scandinavia have described painful childhood memories of being told, often by a choir leader or teacher, that they couldn’t sing. Those harsh put-downs fostered an early sense of being a musical failure unable to carry a tune. “Children of all ages can learn to sing if they have appropriate experiences,” Welch holds.

Vocal forgiveness

No one, including opera divas and American Idol winners, sings every note in perfect pitch. “Absolutely in-tune singing does not sound human,” Welch says. People learn to accept a limited amount of musical mistuning as still being in tune, with vocalists getting an especially big break. Listeners are more likely to call a musical note in tune when it’s sung than when it’s played on a violin, Hutchins and his colleagues reported in the December Music Perception.

Among nonmusicians, sung tones needed to be mistuned by at least twice as much as violin tones to be judged as out of tune. A professional opera singer could drift off-key by roughly half the acoustic distance from, say, F to F sharp before volunteers said she was hitting a clunker. A trained violinist could veer off-key only about one-quarter of the way from F to F sharp before getting bad reviews.

Musicians recruited for the study reported a smaller range of acceptable tuning than nonmusicians did but still gave considerably more leeway to a singer than a violinist.

This finding, which the researchers dub the vocal generosity effect, may explain the well-established tendency for singers to be less in tune than instrumentalists. Hearing many more mistuned voices than musical instruments in one’s lifetime might prompt a charitable ear for singing errors.

Still, hard-core tune wreckers shouldn’t hold their breath waiting for an audience’s vocal generosity to kick in. Belting out a star-spangled mess in the key of shriek marked Roseanne as disrespectful. William Hung enjoyed a moment of fame because his inept song-and-dance routine was entertainingly mockable.

As for the “My Way” killings, die-hard Sinatra fans apparently have less patience with bad singers than the Chairman of the Board did.

Editor’s Note: This story was updated on September 10, 2013, to correct the affiliation of Sean Hutchins.

Bruce Bower has written about the behavioral sciences for Science News since 1984. He writes about psychology, anthropology, archaeology and mental health issues.

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