‘How unmusical is Man?’*
If music is intrinsic to humans as a species, how can some people be so apparently ‘unmusical’? And what (if anything) can we do to help ‘unmusical’ students when they present themselves in your choir or in the teaching studio?
In last month’s post, I talked about some of the differences between so-called ‘musical’ people and people who appear to be ‘unmusical’, and I described two (imperfect, but I hope still useful) categories of apparently ‘unmusical’ singers:
I. Students who sing out of tune; and
II. Students who cannot sing in tune.
In the first category, I put singers who usually sing in tune but sometimes sing out of tune, and I discussed a few of the many technical reasons why these tuning problems sometimes arise in an otherwise well-functioning voice in a generally musical person. Please see my May 2014 blog “Teaching ‘Unmusicality’ – Part I” for more discussion.
II. Students who cannot sing in tune
This month, I’m going to talk about the type of singers I would put in the second category – singers who are unable to sing in tune, and appear not to be able to ‘match pitches’ accurately or reliably when they turn up for lessons.
I should say here that, although there is a lot of science behind our understanding of so-called ‘tone deafness’ and ‘pitch matching’ (type those words into Google Scholar and be amazed), my comments here derive primarily from my own experience of addressing these issues with singers I meet in community choirs and through my teaching studio.
For a good introduction to the science behind tone-deafness, or ‘amusia’ / dysmusia’ as it is sometimes called, I would recommend this article by Julie Ayotte, Isabelle Peretz and Krista Hyde in the journal Brain.) (Ref: http://brain.oxfordjournals.org/content/125/2/238.full)
Tone-deafness: part of what it means to be human?
Students who appear to have no sense of pitch – those whom we might call ‘tone deaf’ – profoundly challenge our assumptions that human beings are ‘naturally’ musical. If music is an intrinsic part of what it means to be human, how do unmusical people come about, and what, if anything, can we teachers do with them?
Despite our belief that we are a naturally musical species, there are in fact many people who cannot sing in tune, and who demonstrate this perceptual difference in a number of typical ways. I’ll talk about three of the ones I have come across in my work in this post. Please add your own in the comments below!
1. The Generalist
The most common type in the students I have worked with in community choir settings are those who sing entirely outside the desired key area.
When asked to repeat a melody or to sing along with me or with a group, these singers will have the words and usually the rhythms in the right place, but their pitch response will be unspecific, may be predominantly monotone, and may only demonstrate slight fluctuations in pitch when the true melody goes up or down.
I’ll call these singers ‘The Generalists’ since the sounds they produce seem to me to be part of an impulse to sing along, but to do so generally as part of a shared musical experience, rather than with the details of the melody in mind.
These singers are sometimes unaware that they are in the wrong place, and sometimes unsure if they are correct. There may be some residual awareness that something is wrong in their response in relation to the group, but they won’t be able to say exactly what, and they may not notice the discrepancy all of the time.
To my ear, it appears that The Generalists are probably doing either or both of one or two things: they are either (1) hearing melodies through a kind of mental filter that seems to condense the musical material as it comes in, or (2) if they are hearing discrete pitches, they are filtering and condensing as part of their vocal response as they reproduce these sounds through singing.
The Generalists also sometimes respond to ascending pitch patterns by singing more loudly, which to me is especially interesting; it suggests that they recognize that something is changing when a melody goes up, and they register this changes as a shift in intensity, but not in discrete pitches. They may also be hearing the increase in pitch but responding with an increase in physical intensity expressed through their breath (they ‘push harder’) which will make their singing louder.
2. The Skiers
A second type of singer, related to the Generalist but different in key ways, is the singer who can sing across a range of pitches, and whose voice correctly modulates up and down, but who nevertheless struggles to produce clearly differentiated notes with a scale area or melody.
When asked to repeat a scale played on the piano, for example, these singers will often respond with an undulating, sometimes siren-like, sound that may roughly correspond to the real range of the scale, but that will nevertheless lack the melodic ‘steps on the ladder’ – of the scale.
At other times, they start on a discrete single pitch, but when they move away it will not be by melodic step, but by sliding away from the first note, with equal volume both on and between the pitches.
I will call these singers ‘Skiers’, since they are crossing the right general pitch territory, but they habitually slide over, rather than pause on, the discrete notes in the scale or melody.
3. The Talkers
My third category of singers who cannot sing in tune is those singers who sing quite well in certain parts of their range, but ‘ski’ or ‘generalize’ in the outer areas of their range. I will call these singers ‘The Talkers’, since the part of their range in which their singing is in tune is their speaking range. Their singing is like enhanced talking, and when they move out of this familiar part of their range, they lose the ability to match pitch.
If these singers sing only repertoire with a limited pitch range, and especially if they sing in styles that favour a speech-like sound (such as blue grass, blues, folk, rap, or some pop music), their inability to sing in tune in their upper register may go undetected.
These singers are interesting to me because it suggests that their ability to be precise with their voice functions very well when they are speaking. Singing out of this range requires a different laryngeal movement, however, and this change seems to be enough to make them feel disoriented and detached from their voice.
To tune in or to tune out? – That is the question
So what, if anything, can music teachers do to help these singers?
Is the inability to sing in tune simply an inherited trait that cannot be changed, or is there something that can be done to help people who are considered to be tone-deaf, but who would like to improve as singers?
I am certainly no expert in this area, and I would recommend that those interested read the literature on various forms of ‘amusia’ /’dysmusia’ and related conditions, to get a fuller picture of how professionals might deal with these conditions outside of the context of a music lesson.
But in my own work, I have seen some definite similarities between the Generalists, Skiers, and Talkers. I’ve also noticed a couple of key differences between the ‘unmusical’ and the ‘musical’ singers (see my May 2014 post for more of this different). In all cases, in my work, these singers seem to exhibit the following characteristics:
1. the singers do not hear the details in music
2. the singers are not comfortable with the instrument of their voice.
3. the singers show a lack of coordination between their ear and their voice. Curiously, their speech is normal and they modulate correctly in the ‘tune’ of a normal sentence. But there is a separation between the two when it comes to their singing.
Have you met students like this in your teaching studio? Next month I will be offering some suggestions of techniques I have used to help people to learn to sing in tune. In the mean time, I’ll look forward to reading about your experiences with musically challenged students in the comments below!
* with apologies to John Blacking (‘How musical is Man?’ 1973)