According to new research from Northwestern University singing on pitch or carrying a tune is a learned skill that can improve with practice, and can also decline over time if not used. Researchers say that the ability to sing on key may have more in common with the kind of practice that goes into playing an instrument than people realize. According to the research team from Northwestern, only a tiny subset of the population is truly tone deaf, which means they can’t hear most changes in pitch. In an article published in a special February 2015 edition of the journal Music Perception, the Northwestern researchers explained how they tested and compared the pitch or singing accuracy of people from 3 age groups.

The researchers tested the singing accuracy of participating kindergarteners, 6th graders, and college-aged adults by asking study participants to listen to 4 repetitions of a single pitch and then sing back the sequence. Another test required them to sing back at intervals. The study outcomes revealed considerable improvement in accuracy among participants in kindergarten and elementary school, when most children are likely receiving regular music instruction. Study outcomes for the adult group were less impressive, and revealed that the skill of singing on pitch declines over time if it is not practiced or used with regularity.

“No one expects a beginner on violin to sound good right away, it takes practice, but everyone is supposed to be able to sing,” said lead researcher Steven Demorest, PhD, a professor of music education at Northwestern’s Bienen School of Music. “When people are unsuccessful they take it very personally, but we think if you sing more, you’ll get better.”

Demorest went on to say that, while singing on pitch is likely easier for some people than others, it is also a skill that can be taught and developed, and relies on regular use. He says the study outcomes suggest that adults who sang better or more accurately as children lost the ability when they stopped singing.

According to the study article, by 8th grade only 34% of children in the United States participate in music instruction, and that number declines as they progress through high school. He reports that children who have been told they can’t sing well are even less likely to engage with music in the future, and often vividly remember the negative experience well into adulthood. Being called “tone deaf” can have devastating effects on a child’s self-image, the researchers report.

Demorest and study co-author, Peter Pfordresher, PhD, director of the Auditory Perception and Action Lab at the University at Buffalo, have reportedly spearheaded a collaborative effort to create an online measure of singing accuracy. This online measure will be accessible to music teachers, who can use the tool to help struggling students test their singing ability. Called the Seattle Singing Accuracy Profile (SSAP), the tool would standardize the way singing is measured so that researchers can compare their results across multiple studies and build a clearer picture of the causes of inaccurate singing, the researchers say.

“Everyone should be able to have music as a part of their life,” said Demorest. “It’s OK to select out of it, but it should be by choice, rather than because you think you don’t have ‘talent.’ And, if at any point in life you decide to become more engaged, you can be.”


Source: Northwestern University

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