The element that makes some people sing nicely and others poorly is problems with pitch accuracy, which is also called intonation. Pitch can be understood as the ‘sharpness’ of a voice; higher the pitch, higher is the sharpness and shriller the voice sounds.
Some people are born with certain innate abilities that melt our hearts or amaze us. Watch a great movie and you’ll feel inspired, read a good book and you’ll appreciate the complexity of the world, listen to a good singer and the world will suddenly seem more beautiful.
However, is the ability to sing beautifully a toss of the genetic dice, or can anyone learn to sing well? Were Beyonce, Justin Timberlake and Christina Aguilera born with this gift or was it years of practice that made them so talented? Turns out, singing, more specifically, is the result of a combination of an innate talent and relentless effort. Unfortunately, not everyone’s voice is particularly pleasant to listen to.
So, why do some people seem to always sing bad?
What is ‘Bad Singing’?
Kind of a strange question, right?
Although it’s quite difficult to define the boundaries of ‘good singing’, since ‘good singing’ to you may not be the same for your friends, good singing can be scientifically differentiated from bad singing. If you’re a bad singer, it means that you are lacking in one or more of these areas; timing (the ability to keep time in the music), note memory, and pitch accuracy.
It has been observed that the majority of people are fairly decent when it comes to note memory and timing. Regardless of being trained in singing or not, most people would be able to identify the song you’re singing, even if you were not singing particularly well. That is undeniable proof of an ability to remember notes. Similarly, people are fairly good at timing their notes and changes while singing.
Why can some people sing well but others can’t?
Numerous factors go into one’s ability to sing. Good singers are born with an amazing ‘instrument’ that includes lungs with superb vital capacity, exceptional breath control, and a larynx that allows them to stretch and squash their vocal cords to achieve the desired vocal range. The shape and size of one’s pharynx and nasal cavities also has a correlation with his ability to sing. A good example of this is a guitar; each guitar will sound different, even while using the same strings, due to its individual shape and size.
Mental aspects of a person also play a huge role in his ability to sing. A person confident in his singing would have a higher chance at succeeding in music as against a person who doubts himself and his talents. Moreover, people who have been exposed to music since an early age and have been raised in an environment where singing is encouraged have a higher chance of being good at it.
Another very important element that makes some people sing nicely and others poorly is problems with pitch accuracy, which is also called intonation. Pitch can be understood as the ‘sharpness’ of a voice; female voices are typically higher pitched than male voices. Pitch is measured in cents; 1 semitone is made up of 100 cents, which is equivalent to one-twelfth of an octave.
Pitch errors can be regarded as the difference in the number of cents of the sung tone from the intended tone. If your tone is off the intended tone by more than 50 cents, then your singing would likely be considered “bad”.
Interestingly, a study found that we, as humans, are able to recognize distinct pitches and recreate them on an instrument, even though some of us may find it difficult to listen to a pitch and recreate the sound with our voices. This shows that we, in fact, do have the innate ability to ‘recognize’ pitches. What we lack is a good ear to hear the pitch that we are singing in, when we try to recreate it, which renders us unable to sing it correctly.
Why Does This Happen?
It all comes down to those tricky activities of the brain. The problem with the brain lies in not being able to adjust its activities against a particular target (which, in this case, is a particular tone). That may be a bit confusing, so let’s break it down a little further.
When you hear a tune, your brain has a perception of its various parameters, such as loudness, pitch, tone and so on. Human brains are pretty good at perceiving the right tone, which means that the possibility of an error in our brain’s perception of the tone is ruled out. Hence, the ‘input’ component in this case is alright; the problem occurs at the ‘output’. After hearing the tone, the brain maps out an output tone to match the one it heard, but sadly, it’s not in tune. In other words, most of the poor singing is due to ‘poor motor control’ and ‘timbral-translation errors’.
Why can’t I sing?
Even when you do realize when you are singing off-key, there is not much you can do about it. Your ears do register that you’re not quite producing the tone that you intended to, so the vocal cords ask for instructions from the brain. However, the brain still sends the same instructions, and you simply can’t get the tone right. It’s almost as though the vocal cords have locked themselves in a particular position to produce the same erroneous tone every time, even after knowing better!
Additionally, you may be using your ‘speaking voice’ instead of your ‘singing voice’. While talking, we typically use a lower limited range, whereas, our singing voice is relatively higher. It is easier to teach the skill to a child than to an adult, because, the longer a person tries to sing with their speaking voice, the harder it becomes to break that habit. Therefore, it is just a matter of continuously practicing to relax your vocal mechanism and using supported breath to sing, rather than making the voice ‘do something’.
Practice is Key
People are born with certain connections within the brain that make huge differences in many abilities and weakness they possess. However, the good news is that these connections, which were long thought to be permanent, can actually be changed with extensive practice. Yes, practicing the same activities over a long period of time can be very effective at readjusting and redefining these connections, and consequently, your appeal as a singer!
It is important to remember that singers are not only born, but also made. If you have heard your favorite singers sing over time, you are likely to have noticed considerable changes in their voices. Taylor Swift, for example, sounds extremely different now than she did five years ago, and in a good way. This can partly be due to maturity, but a huge part of it is due to consistent and thorough practice.
Therefore, don’t worry if you can’t sing well now; it’s just a matter of time and patience. Who knows, one day, after enough practice, maybe you’ll be belting out a beautiful song to an auditorium full of people. Don’t let anyone tell you that you “have a bad voice”. An important part of the process is simply learning to be comfortable with the unique voice that you have. You can, however, always buckle down and practice to find that perfect pitch!