Everyone Can Sing

Very few people are truly tone-deaf. Most just need to practice, a new study finds.

Choristers of St. Mary's of the Angels school. Photograph taken around 1930. (Imagno / Getty)

Many universities have performance choirs, but the one at Morley College, an adult- education school in London, has an unusual caveat: It’s a chorus for people who can’t sing.

For the past 15 years, the school has run both choirs and special classes for people who want to learn to sing better (or at all).

But what about the truly tone-deaf, you ask? Those who couldn’t carry a tune in a basket?

Less than 2 percent of the students the choir’s director, Andrea Brown, encounters are actually tone-deaf, she told the BBC. The rest simply have “their own unique voice.”

Brown’s experience tracks with the findings of a new study out in the journal Music Perception, which suggests that singing is not so much a natural ability as it is a skill that withers away if not practiced.

For the study, researchers Steven Demorest and Peter Pfordresher compared how well a group of kindergarteners, sixth graders, and college-aged adults performed on three tasks that involved singing a series of notes.

The kindergarteners, unsurprisingly, couldn’t hit the notes very accurately, but the sixth graders were markedly better—perhaps because the children had been receiving music education in the intervening time.

However, the college-aged participants performed only as well as the kindergarteners on two of the three singing tasks.

Errors Made While Singing
Music Perception

“Though considerable improvement was found among the two groups of school-aged children, from grade six to college we observed an almost complete reversal of these gains,” the researchers wrote.

That suggests, to the authors, that singing ability is subject to a “use it or lose it” effect. Only about a third of American middle-school children take elective music classes, and their ranks thin further as students enter high school.

The researchers caution against labeling people as “tone-deaf” or telling them they “can’t sing.” Only a small percentage of people, about one in 20, suffer from true tone-deafness, condition called amusia. Past studies have found that most bad singers can discern musical notes perfectly well, and they have similar vocal ranges as good singers.

What they lack, however, is training: People feel so discouraged by being told they’re poor singers that they rarely try to sing—and they never get better. Demorest and Pfordresher said in a statement that adults should seek out “low-stakes” opportunities for singing without feeling judged.

"Singing badly in a group is great fun,” Morley College Can't Sing Choir member Ian Gorman said. “It's football crowd syndrome—not a single person hits the right notes, but it sounds good.”