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February 7th, 2012

“A Frog in your throat or in your ear?”

Postdoctoral fellow Sean Hutchins recently published results in the “Journal for Experimental Psychology” on why some of us were poor singers…

In an article entitled “Where Bad Singing Comes From?”, published in the Wall Street Journal blog on September 28, 2011, Christopher Shea, summarized as follows Sean Hutchins’ study:

“Why do people sing badly? Usually it’s not because they have tin ears, a new study finds.

To test the perception-versus-performance issue, researchers had 25 non-musicians and 13 musicians attempt to match pitches, using either their voices or a specially fashioned instrument: They moved a “slider” back and forth to change pitch, triggering tones by pressing it. They had time to make a few attempts—to home in on their final selection—and could re-listen to the original note.

Musicians were nearly perfect using the slider and close to perfect using their voices. For their part, non-musicians were 97% accurate using the slider (although it did take them considerably longer to settle on their final selection than it did for the musicians). That demonstrated that most could recognize pitch. But singing was a different story, with the pitch-accuracy rate dropping to 59%.

To clarify the cause, researchers had 31 non-musicians undertake the original tests plus a new one: matching vocal tones they themselves had recorded. As predicted, people performed somewhat better on this test than the other vocal test, but not as well as on the slider test.

In short, three distinct types of bad singers emerged in the second experiment. Two people (6%) couldn’t match tones even using a slider. Six (19%) could match pitches with the slider but not with their voice, suggesting the problem was poor vocal-muscle control. And 11 (35%) could match with the slider, and self-match, but they couldn’t vocally match the synthesized sound. For that group, the problem appeared to be mentally translating the sound of the synthesizer tone (its “timbre”).

If I’m reading the study correctly, this seems to offer hope to the bulk of us poor singers, since vocal control and timbre-translation could likely be improved through study and practice.”

Also on the web

The BodyOdd on msnbc.com 

To know more about this study

Sean Hutchins and Isabelle Peretz, “A frog in your throat or in your ear? Searching for the causes of poor singing”. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, Aug 29, 2011. doi: 10.1037/a0025064

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