Sep. 29, 2011 at 9:19 AM ET
Despite a glut of TV singing shows from "American Idol" to "The Voice" to "The X Factor" to "The Sing Off" and even "Glee," 10 to 20 percent of the population fails to sing in tune, according to an often-cited expert estimate. But a new study suggests the number of horrible singers is actually much higher than that, and it explains the reasons why many folks are vocally challenged when it comes to music.
Truth be told, having a great set of pipes is no simple matter.
"Singing is a complex act," says Sean Hutchins, the study's lead author and a postdoctoral researcher at the International Laboratory for Brain, Music and Sound Research at the University of Montreal. Singing is complicated because you need to match a note with your voice and perceive it accurately, you need to figure out the right way to configure your vocal muscles, and you need to control those muscles well enough to belt out a tune, he explains.
That leaves a slew of places for a rock star wannabe or car-radio crooner to mess up. Hutchins' research, published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, attempts to identify where awful singers go wrong in the process.
In a series of five experiments, researchers compared small groups of people with or without musical training. They tested participants' accuracy at matching their voices to various pitches, to a target vocal or musical tone, or to other singers.
The study found that anywhere from 40 to 62 percent of non-musicians were poor singers, a rate much higher than shown in previous research.
It also found that roughly 20 percent of people can't sing accurately because they don't have good control of their vocal muscles. Another 35 percent of poor singers have trouble matching the pitch of their own voice to the same sound heard in other timbres, such as when it's coming from a trumpet, piano, or a person of the opposite sex. And 5 percent of lousy singers lack the ability to hear differences in pitch or discriminate between two different sounds.
To be sure, some aspects of singing are influenced by genetics. "There are certainly people who are more natural singers, and the physiological shape of their vocal tracts can give a more or less pleasing natural sound to the voice," Hutchins points out. But he says, the best singers just like the best athletes will be those who are blessed with natural talent and have devoted a large amount of practice to their craft.
However, it's the poor singers of the world who are the least likely to practice. And that's what's necessary to get better at it.
To improve, Hutchins suggests that "pitch -- hitting the right notes -- is the most important part of singing well."
If you need motivation to cultivate your vocal chops no matter how hideous you sound, there's what Hutchins calls the "vocal generosity effect."
He says listeners are quite forgiving of singing errors, more so than for other types of music. "Singers actually can be quite out-of-tune before listeners will notice the flubs, but they would pick up on a musician's subtle mistakes sooner in say, someone playing the violin."
What about you? Can you carry a tune?