Updated: May 10, 2020
A child walks into his first piano lesson and plays nothing but musical nonsense on his first attempt at making his fingers coax a melody out of the black and white keys. Do you think to yourself, “Wow, this kid has no talent whatsoever, he should give it up!”, or “I wonder how good he will be a year from now?”
So what’s up with the bias towards beginning singers? Why do we assume, quite immediately, that the inability to sing a tune well means that the beginning singer has no talent whatsoever?
Let’s face it. Most people think that either you can sing, or you can’t. That singing the right notes with the right words at the right time is something that either comes naturally, or doesn’t. And yes, this does come naturally to the gifted singer. The exception, not the rule.
So why don’t we break this down and take a closer look at what this really means? Because, as it turns out, the human voice is the most difficult of instruments to master:
1. “Singing the right notes”
What is a “right” note? Do you mean the musical pitch of the note? Or the anatomical vocal registration of the note? Or the tonal quality of the note? Or the intensity of the note? Or a combination of all these elements?
Let’s start with pitch: If I ask you to play a C4 pitch on a piano, and have previously pointed out the exact location of the corresponding key you need to push (during lessons), then you will have no trouble doing this. You can see the key’s location, and memorize it. Pushing it down with your finger can be done softer or louder, but it’s always the same key position.
If I ask you to sing a C4, you need to coordinate your exhalation airspeed and vocal cord tension to set off a vibration frequency of 261.1 Hz. You’re probably thinking, “Huh?”
“Huh” is right. Singers can’t see or touch their instruments. In fact, the human voice is the only instrument that can’t be learned by sight or touch. It can only be learned by feel. And if you aren’t “hitting the notes” in terms of musical pitch when you sing, it doesn’t necessarily mean that you’re tone deaf. Maybe your air speed is off. If it’s too fast and your vocal cords aren’t sufficiently tensed, for example, you will be sharp (singing above the desired pitch). Or you’re overly tensing your vocal cords and blowing way too hard, in which case you will be flat (singing below the desired pitch). You can hear the pitch perfectly fine, but somehow you don’t know how to tell your voice box to make that pitch happen.
Did I mention that the same pitch in a different vocal register, a different tonal quality, or a different intensity, requires a different configuration of airstream and vocal cord muscles to create it? And that a lot of the possible configurations are physically harmful to the voice?
2. “Singing the right words”
“Ok, so you memorize the lyrics, what’s the big deal?” The sequence of words is not the problem. The pronunciation of them, is. As if it wasn’t already tricky enough to coordinate airspeed and vocal cord vibration, singers need to learn how to shape the inside and outside of their throats and mouths (larynx & tongue position, jaw opening, lip shape) to make their voices sound good.
If a piano was made of only strings and hammers, without the surrounding resonance box, it would sound completely different. It is the shape of an instrument that determines how it’s going to sound. It’s why a violin sounds different from a guitar, for example. Both are string instruments, but they produce very different sounds.
Remember how I said earlier that you can only learn to sing by feel? How about we consider that the human voice is also the only instrument that continuously changes its resonance chamber (the throat and mouth)?
Try this, say the word “star” very slowly, and notice what you have to do with your jaw, tongue, lips, air, and voice to create the vowel and consonant sounds. You will find that for a word that takes only a fraction of a second to say, you went through 4 distinct tongue positions, 3 air speeds, 3 lip shapes, and 3 jaw openings. The resonance chamber changed shape with each letter. So learning to maintain an even sound through ever changing mouth shapes is no small feat.
Did I mention that the higher you sing, the more specific your mouth/throat configuration has to be? That generally, singers must slightly alter the pronunciation of a word in order to create a good sound, and that this configuration changes with pitch, too?
3. “Singing in time”
Some people can naturally stay in rhythm, and some can’t. This can be trained, and is universal to all instruments. But singers carry the additional task of conveying the underlying message of a lyric. For example, “I want to go to the movies tonight”. It’s easy to say it in different ways: I want to go to the movies tonight. I want to go to the movies tonight. I want to go to the movies tonight. I want to go to the movies tonight.
Yet singers are bound by the melody of the song. If the message you want to convey is, “I want to go to the movies tonight”, but the melody requires you to sing a high, sustained note on “tonight” instead, how do you get the point across? Slight variations of pitch choice and/or rhythmic placement, or tonal quality, or intensity, or vocal registration of certain notes can bring the words to life.
Did I mention that the rhythm should only be defined with your articulation muscles, but not with breath pulses? That an overly rhythmic exhalation can negatively affect the voice?
Last, but certainly not least, the voice is directly influenced by hydration levels, sleep levels, physical health & fitness, muscle tension, posture, dietary habits, hormonal fluctuations, age, air quality, ….
So next time you hear an inexperienced singer, think twice before encouraging anyone to “give it up, you can’t sing!”. She may have the talent after all, but hasn’t figured out how to play her instrument well yet.