Thursday, July 26, 2007

'Why do people sing so shamelessly out of tune?'

This week a national newspaper called me with this peculiar question. It reminded me immediately of a lecture that Isabelle Peretz (University of Montreal) gave this spring in the UK on amusia or tone deafness. In that she showed recent video material of a lab member who sang very much out of tune, but who was not aware of it. Surprising, because he has a degree in music education.

The reason I mention the example is that we often equal a talent for music to performance, such as being able to sing or play an instrument, and not so much to perception, for instance, being sensitive to subtle differences in pitch and timing when listening to music. When somebody sings out of tune, we might infer that he or she has no talent for music.

That is of course a misunderstanding. We can not simply judge someone’s musicality through the acrobatics of performance (Besides it needs years of training; see an earlier posting). More and more research is showing that mere exposure —not musical expertise as a result of formal training— has an influence on making sophisticated musical judgments.

With regard to performance, an intriguing study was done by Simone Dalla Bella and colleagues (just published in JASA). They asked occasional singers, recruited in a public park, to sing a well-known Quebecan birthday song. It was no surprise to find the professional musicians to reproduce the song much more precise than the ‘non-musicians’. However, when the ‘non-musicians’ were invited in the lab, and were asked to sing it again at a slightly slower pace, most sang it just as accurately as the professional singers. Another example that shows that musical skills are more common than we might think.

ResearchBlogging.orgDalla Bella, S., Giguère, J., & Peretz, I. (2007). Singing proficiency in the general population The Journal of the Acoustical Society of America, 121 (2) DOI: 10.1121/1.2427111


  1. I'd just like to point out that"Quebecan" is not a word. You're Canadian? It's Quebecois or - which sounds ridiculous but seems to be an official word - Quebecker.