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The Science of Why You Can't Carry a Tune

Singing requires a surprising amount of coordination.

From an early age, talking comes pretty naturally to most of us. We open our mouths and out come words. Sure, we still have to build our vocabulary and our grammar, and maybe ease up on the ten-year-old boy's fascination with all things scatological, but talking is easy enough. Singing seems like it should be just as easy, and for some people, it is. But there's actually a lot going on in our bodies when we sing. 

When we want to produce a note, we need to coordinate our lungs, our diaphragm, our throat, our mouth, our tongue, and our lips. And so much—from a change in lung pressure to the wrong shape of our mouth—can go wrong. We need to make all those elements work together when we talk as well, but speaking English and many other languages requires producing specific sounds, not specific pitches. So while we may tease someone who uses a funny pronunciation of a word, most of us are tolerant of people with accents. And we don't call people with deep, sexy voices bad talkers because they don't hit the high notes. 

Sean Hutchins, a neuroscientist and director of research at the Royal Conservatory of Music in Toronto compares singing to tossing a baseball. We require complicated muscle coordination and timing to throw a ball with the right trajectory. Screw up any step in the process and the ball won't go anywhere near your friend's mitt. "The same type of thing is going on when you're singing," he said, "except it's all inside of you." That makes it much harder. 

While we can watch someone throw a baseball to learn how to do it better—just as we can watch people play piano or guitar and see what they do with their fingers and hands—the steps necessary to sing a note are invisible. Watch singers and you will see their lips move. And perhaps you can see their bodies move as they take in air and let it out again. But you can't see what their diaphragms are doing or what their lungs are doing or even what their tongues are doing. Everything is hidden. Even if you used a laryngoscope to see these muscles and organs, you probably couldn't make much sense out of what you saw. According to Peter Pfordresher, director of the auditory perception and action lab at the University of Buffalo, "It's a pretty strange-looking image." 

Growing up in Connecticut, Hutchins took music and voice lessons throughout high school. He kept at it during his undergrad and graduate years with some a capella, some barbershop, and some light opera. He even met his wife while doing Gilbert and Sullivan. Meanwhile, as a psychology student, he was intrigued by the relationship between perception and production: how we coordinate what we see and perceive in the world with what we do in the world. As it turned out, singing was ideal for studying that interaction because in order to sing together, singers must coordinate what they're producing with what they're hearing. 

If you can't hit the right notes, you are, by definition, a bad singer. So the starting point for all good singing is the ability to perceive pitch, but it's more complicated than that. After a music teacher said, "I think everybody is deeply musical," the phrase stuck with Pfordresher and it's something he's wanted to explore through his research ever since. Believing it's a shame that so many people are unhappy with their singing, he wanted to understand the problems they have with it and to see if there was a way to help them. He thinks singing is as fascinating as it is difficult. Academic literature is full of studies, including his, about why some people can't imitate pitch correctly. "An almost more perplexing question is, 'Why is it that anybody can do it?'" he said. "The fact that as many of us can do that as are able to do that is, to me, a kind of wondrous thing, a kind of mystifying thing."  He believes that when people say, "Oh, that guy can't sing," they usually think they're assessing pitch. But they may be reacting to something completely different. When he talks to people about his job, they inevitably bring up American Idol and all the hopeless performers on the show. Many of them are, he'd agree, poor-pitch singers, but he figured there was something more going on so he decided to evaluate the program's most notorious contestant: William Hung. 

After winning a talent contest at his Berkeley dorm, the civil engineering student auditioned for the third season of American Idol. Despite his obvious (and nerdily charming) enthusiasm, it did not go well. While Randy Jackson, one of the judges, chortled away, Simon Cowell, the famously nasty judge, stopped Hung's a cappella rendition of Ricky Martin's "She Bangs" early on and said, "You can't sing, you can't dance, so what do you want me to say?" After his performance ran in January 2004, it became a viral sensation and Hung became a celebrity—and even landed a record deal. 

Curious about why everyone thought it was so terrible, Pfordresher compared Hung's rendition to the original. "Sure enough," he said, "William Hung's pitches were pretty much identical to Ricky Martin's pitches." He was singing the right notes, and he was doing it in one take without accompaniment and without digital editing, in a stressful situation. Not many people could do that. And still they laughed him off the stage. 

Turns out, there's more to a good voice than pitch control. Timing, for one thing. Volume, for another: Some songs call for soft, gentle vocals while some music demands it be sung loud. In addition, every singer has his or her own distinct sound, and some sounds work better for certain songs than for others. Luciano Pavarotti's rich tenor was no more likely to work well for an album of country and western covers than Johnny Cash's deep growl would have been appropriate for an opera. 

Hung's problems started before he even hit the stage. "She Bangs" wasn't a wise choice—not because it's a silly song (though that's true, for sure), but because it's not well suited to an a cappella rendition. And, sad to say, Hung's accent didn't help. From many of the original British Invasion bands to more recent examples such as First Aid Kit—two Swedish sisters who come across like they grew up in the American Midwest—we're so used to artists from all over the world sounding as if they're from the United States that anything else seems off. Then there's Hung's timing, which isn't great, and the thinness of his voice. 

In some genres, not being a virtuosic singer doesn't preclude great success. In 1985, Canadian musicians gathered in a Toronto studio to record a benefit song called "Tears Are Not Enough." It joined the British "Do They Know It's Christmas?" and the American "We Are the World" as supergroup singles that raised money for Ethiopian famine relief. The song is hardly an enduring classic, but the list of musicians who recorded it remains impressive: Neil Young, Joni Mitchell, Gordon Lightfoot, Anne Murray, Liona Boyd, Oscar Peterson, and many others. After Young sang his line in the studio, producer David Foster told him, "Little flat on 'innocence,' but other than that, it was great. We'll go again." Young waited a beat or two and then deadpanned, "That's my sound, man." 

That sound has certainly served him well for nearly six decades. Perhaps that's no surprise in rock music, but opera singers can sometimes be as far out of tune as shower singers. Divas have a certain sound that comes from the way they support their voices and the way they hold their facial muscles. "And then there's that little trump card in classical singing, the vibrato, which, frankly, makes the pitch that someone's singing somewhat ambiguous," said Pfordresher. So they can be slightly off and few of us will notice. 

Even for good singers, getting really good takes work, as I learned from Kellie Walsh, who comes from what she calls a "traditional Newfoundland family." Her dad was the son of a fisherman who had a family of eighteen and, when she was growing up, Sunday dinners were at her grandparents', where there was always music: People played accordion, spoons, and guitar, and they sang and danced. As the artistic director of the Lady Cove Women's Choir and Shallaway: Newfoundland and Labrador Youth in Chorus as well as the founder and conductor emeritus of the Newman Sound Men's Choir, she's taken part in competitions around the world. The trick to singing well, she says, is to treat the body as an instrument rather than just thinking, "If I open my mouth, sound will come out." Young singers often don't realize that a good voice comes from their diaphragm, not their throat. Once they start using more of their bodies, they produce a more pleasing sound. 

The goal with a choir is to make the sound as "blended and beautiful and in tune as possible," but trying to instruct and correct up to sixty singers at once is, of course, more challenging than working with one person. And because singing takes place inside the body, which she can't show, Walsh uses metaphor and mental images. One of her techniques is to tell singers to think of the inside of the mouth as a clock. Sending the sound to twelve o'clock means direct- ing their voices up to the centre of the roof of their mouth, or to three o'clock where the teeth are. "I'll say put that vowel right at twelve o'clock. Or if I want it to sound darker, I'll say put that vowel back at nine o'clock, to the back." 

While Barnes spends a lot of time working on technique with his clients, he also says that the hardest part of singing for most of them is trusting their instrument, which requires trusting themselves. "Singing is easy," he told me. "It's just hard to let it be simple." Our need to be good, our worrying about being good, and our eagerness to criticize complicates the act for us. We end up afraid to do it. "If you're full of doubt and judgment, then singing is indeed quite hard. To be worrying about your singing while you're singing means you're doing it wrong." 

As a performer, Barnes knows that when he's relaxed, he sounds better and puts on a better show. He believes singing is emotional, spiritual, and physical—and you can't separate this trinity. He's met and worked with a lot of great singers and they tend to be really soulful people. "Gladys Knight is a great singer, and she was exactly like her voice: warm, relaxed, intimate, easygoing. Chaka Khan is a brilliant singer, and she was exactly like her voice: intense, radical, crazy. k.d. lang is a very relaxed person, a very self-assured person, a very in-touch-with-her-spiritual-self person. Really surrendered in a Buddhist sense." Still, he admitted, truly good singing is hard. "It takes an unusual amount of trust and faith to really fill the world with your sound." 

This post is excerpted from Bad Singer: The Surprising Science of Tone Deafness and How We Hear Musicwhich is out today.