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The science of singing in tune

The science of singing in tune

Published on December 14, 2021

Dr. Sean Hutchins 

Group of students singing
Photo taken prior to COVID.

With the holiday season upon us and music in the air, the tradition of singing carols is a wonderful way to bring family and friends together. For some, however, the prospect of singing in front of others brings about not joy, but terror.  

Why is it that a certain portion of the population, despite their best efforts, do not seem to be able to sing in tune?  

While many people blame poor singing on being “tone deaf”, or on having a bad ear, research on the neuroscience of music has revealed a very different picture about the causes of poor singing ability. It turns out that most poor singers have a problem of motor coordination, rather than perception. Most people can hear the tune just fine, but poor singers have a problem getting their voice to do what they want it to.  

Singing is a motor skill 

Singing is a physical act involving precise movements of the lungs, vocal folds, throat, tongue, and mouth; singing even a single note in tune requires coordinating all of these together.  

Imagine throwing a dart at a dartboard — even a complete novice can see the bullseye, but it takes the motor coordination brought about by years of practice to hit it consistently. Similarly, with singing, most untrained people will know what the right note is, but many will lack the motor coordination required to produce it consistently.  

Singing with others can help 

One study of singing ability showed that over 90% of poor singing ability could be attributed to motor-related issues. This same study also showed that while over half of all non-musicians struggled with singing in-tune, the majority of these people improved significantly when singing along with another voice.  

So what does this mean for those of us who want to learn to sing better? It means recognizing that singing isn’t just in your head — it’s a motor skill. Practicing, whether with a trained teacher, in a choir, or just on your own, is the most important way to improve, and with practice, almost everyone will be able to get better and feel better about their own voice.  

Dr. Sean Hutchins is a neuroscientist and the Director of Research at The Royal Conservatory of Music in Toronto. He received his Ph.D. from McGill University, studying music and the mind. His current work examines the role of musical training and experience on cognitive and linguistic abilities.