Think You Can’t Sing? The Myths and Mysteries of Vocal Technique

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From Star Search to American Idol to The Voice, television producers have made millions off of a simple conceit: Anyone can be a great singer, just not everyone.

Image of Karen O courtesy of Flickr user neate photos.

Image of Karen O courtesy of Flickr user neate photos.

When it comes to singing, we enjoy convincing others—and even ourselves—that you either ‘have it’ or you don’t. However, the “it” in this case is something we all have: the pathways from our ears to our brain and back out to our vocal cords.

Good singing is a skill that can be developed like any other with the aid of deliberate practice. Understanding the detours and wrong turns sound can take along our neural pathways helps us understand why some of us are effervescent when we sing and some of us are just plain awful.

A Different Tune

Professor Peter Q. Pfordresher of the University of Buffalo would prefer we not use the term “tone-deafness” to describe why we sometimes sound like a cat being strangled, unless we actually are tone deaf. Real tone-deafness—congenital amusia–—is estimated to affect only about 4% of the population. It’s more likely that some of us are what Pfordresher refers to as “poor-pitch singers”. The distinction suggests that our problems with singing are not in what we hear, but in how we try to reproduce what we hear.

“What goes on in our peripheral nervous system during listening is incredibly different than what has to go on when making sounds,” Pfordresher said in a recent UB news release. “Production involves an entire network of muscles that all interact. So moving from listening to singing is like taking one language and translating it into another.”

For his 2005 paper with Steven Brown, “Poor-Pitch Singing in the Absence of Tone-Deafness”, Pfordresher performed experiments in which participants listened to unfamiliar 4-note sequences, and then tried to imitate them using their voices. The good and bad singers alike could discriminate between pitches.  Some singers were off, but in reliable ways, meaning that they were inadvertently transposing notes. Pfordresher and Brown’s conclusion was that “that poor-pitch singing results from mismapping of pitch onto action, rather than problems specific to perceptual, motor, or memory systems.”

The Four Singers You Meet in Hell

Though hardly controversial, Pfordresher’s conclusion broke from the generally accepted and oft-repeated notion that poor singing is based in faulty perception of pitch. In 2008, Sean Hutchins and Isabelle Peretz of BRAMS (The International Laboratory for Brain, Music and Sound Research) in Montreal, Quebec, began conducting their own slew of experiments to determine the causes of poor-pitch singing, and found results similar to Pfordresher’s.

Image by Flickr user epSos.de

Image by Flickr user epSos.de

In one experiment, both musicians and non-musicians were played a synthesized tone, and asked to reproduce its pitch by moving a slider up or down until they found a match. In another experiment, participants were asked to match their own recorded voice. In the third, they were given multiple attempts to match a pitch with their voice. In the fourth, they were given visual representations of pitch to aid them in their matching efforts. In the final experiment, they were asked to match pitches to both synthesized tones and pure vocal tones.

In their research, Hutchins and Peretz noted 4 distinct potential causes of poor-pitch singing: “Perceptual deficits”, “sensorimotor deficits”, “motor control deficits”, and “feedback deficits”. Saying you’re tone deaf would mean you have a perceptual deficit; you can’t understand what you hear. If you ‘don’t have the pipes’–that would be a motor control deficit; your muscles and vocal cords aren’t capable of forming the correct sounds. Feedback deficits relate to people’s ability to hear themselves and their relative tunefulness, although they were not measured in this study. A sensorimotor deficit means you hear it, you know it, you can do it, but when you open your mouth it all goes wrong.

Although Hutchins and Peretz noted that congenital amusia could be a very real cause of poor-pitch singing in those few who are genuinely affected, their slider experiment suggested that perceptual deficits affected singers the least: only 2 out of 31 participants could not match a pitch they heard when they only had to move the slider up or down to do so.

35% of participants could not match a synthesized tone using their voice, but could match a recording of their own voice quite easily. “This indicates that neither do they have any problems perceiving the pitch of a tone, nor do they have any motor control issues to prevent them from accurate singing,” Hutchins and Peretz write. “However, they fail to translate the synthesized vocal tone to the appropriate vocal-motor plan. This is evidence that these participants do have such a sensorimotor translation problem.” Non-musician’s results did not improve either with repeated attempts (experiment 3) or visual aids (experiment 4).

Image by Flickr user Cliff

Image by Flickr user Cliff

To put this all in simpler language, think of the song “Happy Birthday”, a favorite example of many of these researchers. We’ve heard “Happy Birthday” a bajillion times; we don’t have any problems perceiving how it goes—whether the pitch moves up or down after “to you”.  None of the notes in the song are so difficult to produce that our motor skills literally can’t handle them. Yet, we can still mangle “Happy Birthday” because, although our ears may hear an “E”, and our brain says “Sing E,” the message gets mixed up on its way to our vocal chords, and they end up responding with “One F sharp coming right up!” This phenomenon is called imitative deficit.

“Our brains are quite good at perception, which is why so many of us enjoy listening to music without being great musicians,” Sean Hutchins told James Dziezynski for the July issue of Discover magazine. Of course, knowing that poor-pitch singing is a problem in our brains and not our ears may not be any more comforting; if our own minds are giving us bad directions, what hope is there? When Dziezynski asked this very question of Sean Hutchins, the scientist laughed and responded with some common sense: “I would say there’s plenty of hope. Practice, practice, practice. A good vocal teacher and patience will help.”

Better Maps for Better Singing

“A lot of people have this misconception that singing can’t be learned, that you have to pop out of the womb being able to do it,” says Cathleen Wilder over the phone from New Mexico. Wilder has a masters in voice performance, has studied classical and opera, and has taught private voice lessons for over 20 years. “Those people just don’t show up. The people who show up—fortunately for me—are usually better than they think they are. It would be pretty miserable if it were the other way around.”

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Wilder’s personal teaching experience echoes the conclusions of researchers like Sean Hutchins, Isabelle Peretz, and Peter Pfordresher. “I tell people that numero uno in vocal technique is both your musical and emotional intention. If you’re not clear about where you’re going, what’s the chance you’re going to get there?” The right maps are everything.

In our conversation, Wilder touches on several factors that contribute to good singing, honing in on two key elements that are in play before we even open our mouths: our ‘tonal memory’ and our ‘ear-to-voice’ connection.

Vocal instructor Cathleen Wilder

Voice instructor Cathleen Wilder

Tonal memory relates to our ability to recognize and remember various pitches. We may sing F sharp when we mean to sing E because we haven’t spent enough time understanding each note, and its context, individually. Wilder builds tonal memory in her students with exercises that drill notes and their scale positions in the context of a given key. “For example—let’s take the key of C because it’s simple—we’d say ‘Where’s 1?’ (the tonic) and then you’d sing ‘1’. Then we’d say sing (notes) 1-2-3 and you’d sing 1-2-3. Most people tank on that in the beginning.”

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  • Michael D

    Fascinating!

  • John Link

    There’s some good information in this article, but vocal chords are made by multiple singers singing different tones, whereas vocal cords are found inside the larynx.

  • Blake Madden

    Thanks for catching that, John. Those typos have been corrected.

  • James Yates

    Insightful as always. Encouraging, too, for us “non-naturals.” I’ve noticed very slow improvement over the years just by casually recording my voice for studio projects. Your brain/muscle tissue does learn.

  • Mark G

    Great piece. One issue for the editor: “you’re muscles and vocal cords” — *your*

  • Justin C.

    Thanks for the heads up. Fixed!