Is Singing out of Tune Inevitable?
If you are scared of singing in public for fear of being compared to a boiling kettle do not fear, singing out of tune is apparently avoidable and not due to bad hearing.
Is it Serious, Doctor?
Not at all! “Everybody is capable of singing in tune” says Erkki Bianco, speech therapist and former laryngologist at the Ecole d’Art Lyrique (Singing School) at the Paris Opera. He dispels a common myth saying “people always say that it’s a problem with the ear but that’s completely untrue, it’s a problem with proprioception”.
What's proprioception? Well, simply put, it is an awareness of our own body and its workings. So, unless someone is suffering from a very serious hearing problem, they probably sing out of tune because they do not have good vocal practices.
The Root of the Problem
Everyone uses his or her vocal chords every day, if only to talk. Singing complicates matters somewhat as it requires you to use your muscles to create pitch and to remember how each pitch feels.
Those who have been singing from a young age do this unconsciously. Others have to learn, the first hurdle is often overcoming the widespread, deep-rooted feeling that you simply “can’t”.
When some find the courage to start singing, they are disappointed by their first attempts. This is however often due to stress, which puts pressure on the vocal chords. In these cases there is often a gap between how they want to sing and how they do.
Even the least shy people can sing badly simply because they have not exercised their vocal chords in this way. A good musician may find singing difficult, as they never have had to in the past, other than in theory classes.
“Almost everyone can sing Frère Jacques quite easily… but Happy Birthday seems more complicated,” says Dr. Bianco. This is in part because people learning to sing wrongly assume that a gap between two notes requires a big effort, when the gesture needed to affect it is actually very small…
France, A Poor Student
“France is one of the countries where we sing worst”. French schoolchildren sing too infrequently, particularly when compared to their German and British neighbours. When French students are asked to sing it’s often in theoretical or stressful situations, which inhibits them.
The flat, unaccented French language does not help. In fact, singing comes more naturally to those with tonal languages. In Chinese, for example, the pronunciation of syllables already includes pitch – mâ and mà do not mean the same thing, it is almost necessary to sing to be understood.
Being a Singer
It may seem paradoxical but Dr Bianco is adamant that “to hear, you must first sing”. Singing in tune first and foremost requires physical experimentation, you need to produce both good and bad sounds and remember the feeling of doing it. Somebody whose hearing is deteriorating will still be able to sing well because they have the correct shapes in their muscle memory.
Listening can also be very useful. It is useful to soak up music when you are looking to improve your voice, though you do need to know what to listen for. If tuning is a priority, listening to pitch will help – ask yourself is that note sharper or flatter than the last?
Taken inspiration from great pieces and the most beautiful voices is all very well but it will all be in vain if you do not listen to yourself. Take the case of Florence Foster Jenkins, a notoriously bad singer, who has been depicted on the screen by Catherine Frot (in Marguerite) and Meryl Streep.
Jenkins listened to lots of music and was not lacking in confidence but she sang awfully. Even worse, she did not seem to realise it. According to Dr Bianco, the most logical explanation for her bad singing is that “she started late and, most importantly, did not listen to herself when she sang”.
Never Say Never
Everybody is capable of singing in tune, though it may be a bit more difficult for some. It’s best to start as soon as possible. Then all that remains is to develop your musical ear and your expressiveness.
Even tone-deaf people, who cannot differentiate between notes, must remain optimistic, recent research has shown that it is possible to cure this neurological condition.