How musical is ‘unmusical’ Man?
Can ‘unmusical’ people become musical? What, if anything, can we as educators do to teach the apparently ‘tone deaf’ person to sing in tune and successfully with others?
In Part I of the series, I talked a bit about the paradox of ‘unmusicality’. If, as many people believe, music-making is somehow intrinsic to humans as a species, how can some people be apparently ‘unmusical’? For some singers, out-of-tune singing can usually be fixed with improved technique, but for others, the lack of development in their musical awareness and understanding can seem to be much more profound, even potentially neurological in origin. These people do encourage us to think again – and think deeply – about the anthropologist John Blacking’s famous question: ‘How musical is man?’
In Part II, I looked at a few of the types of ‘unmusicality’ demonstrated by community choral singers that I have come across in my work as a choral clinician and singing teacher. The idea there was to tease apart the types of ‘less musical’ singers I have worked with to see how they differ, and where their strengths and weaknesses typically lie.
I grouped my singers into three categories based on their musical responses: Generalists (those whose singing lacks pitch reference); Skiers (those who sing across the correct pitch areas, or in the right direction, but who do not usually sing discrete notes); and Talkers (those who sing well in their speaking range, but become Generalists or Skiers in other parts of their voice.) In my work with these singers over time, I have found that they also typically demonstrate one or all of the following three qualities:
1. They report not hearing the details in music
2. They are not comfortable with the sound of their voice
3. Their lack of melodic awareness occurs only in ‘musical’ settings, i.e. their speech (which includes many ‘musical’ elements, such as tone and melody) is normal.
The first two qualities in this list suggest that there is a disjunction between perception (whether neurological or psychological) and response. The second item in this list is explained by the other two.
In this post, which is the final post in my series, I’m going to talk a bit about how I have worked with these students in my own workshops and teaching studio.
As I’ve said before, I’m not at all an expert in this field – I’m just speaking as a musician and music teacher who is very interested in what music is, and how working with people who aspire to make music can be hugely revealing about the origins of music, both as cultural phenomenon and as a psycho-physical human response.
For the sake of clarity, I’ll separate my discussion by my three (imperfect, but I hope, useful) categories of ‘unmusical’ singer. In actual fact there are many ways in which the musical responses of these types of singer overlap, but for now I’ll separate them.
I’ll look forward to any other categories any of you may like to add in the comments section, below!
In my work with Generalists, I’ve noticed that their responses to musical stimuli tend to be predominantly bodily, by which I mean they tend to flex major muscle groups, rather than their actual vocal instrument, when reacting to a musical sound. All singers do this to a certain extent, of course; they sway, frown, flex their arms, and stand on their toes as part of their visualization of their musical material, and learning to control these responses is of course an important part of professional training. But the Generalists go further than this, and in what to me are interesting ways.
Singing with the body Read more…