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The science of tone-deafness

YorkshireYankee 04 Aug 12 - 08:05 PM
GUEST,leeneia 05 Aug 12 - 07:16 PM
GUEST,Charles Macfarlane 05 Aug 12 - 09:28 PM
GUEST,999 06 Aug 12 - 05:03 AM
SRD 06 Aug 12 - 05:10 PM
GUEST 06 Aug 12 - 05:33 PM
GUEST,Charles Macfarlane 06 Aug 12 - 05:34 PM
Barbara 07 Aug 12 - 01:00 AM
GUEST,Charles Macfarlane 07 Aug 12 - 04:26 AM
Janie 07 Aug 12 - 06:19 PM
GUEST,foggers 08 Aug 12 - 08:01 AM
Roger the Skiffler 08 Aug 12 - 09:52 AM
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Subject: The science of tone-deafness
From: YorkshireYankee
Date: 04 Aug 12 - 08:05 PM

"How can someone who passionately loves music also be a terrible singer? Tim Falconer takes up voice lessons—and discovers the surprising science of tone deafness."

Face the Music, by Tim Falconer


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Subject: RE: The science of tone-deafness
From: GUEST,leeneia
Date: 05 Aug 12 - 07:16 PM

Thanks for the link, YY. There are some interesting ideas in that article.


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Subject: RE: The science of tone-deafness
From: GUEST,Charles Macfarlane
Date: 05 Aug 12 - 09:28 PM

> From: YorkshireYankee
>
> the surprising science of tone deafness.

The phrase tone-deaf is commonly misunderstood as not being able to sing in tune, whereas, at its simplest, it's not being able to distinguish pitch (though, as the article linked explains, there are various forms of amusia, of which tone-deafness is just one).

It would be nice to have an equally easy phrase to describe "not being able to sing in tune" or the various equally cumbersome alternatives like "not having a trained voice", but I don't know of one. This subject came up as an OT aside in an news group I frequent, and, in case it's of interest, I reproduce below what I posted in reply (in places edited to correct typos and for greater clarity):

"""
AFAIAA, though I have not checked before writing this, there is no medical term for not being able to sing in tune, which suggests that the medical profession do not regard as a medical condition, with which, based on my own tolerably extensive non-medical experience in this field, I would completely agree.

I've run a couple of voice workshops at minor folk festivals, etc, and have met many examples of this. Er, sometimes, rather unfortunately, in folk clubs! As a result of discussing this with a number of other singers, good and bad, I do not believe there is a medical basis for this inability for the vast majority of 'sufferers' from it. Only a small minority who are actually tone deaf or have some other actual physiological disability to do with their mental or aural faculties or the motor control of the muscles used in singing can claim there is something actually wrong with them preventing them from singing.

You have to learn to sing, just as you have to learn to walk and talk. Like the latter, learning to sing usually happens at such an early age that one doesn't even realise that one is learning it, and later on has little or no conscious memory of it. This gives rise to a sort of myth that one either can or can't do it. But, although, like learning any musical instrument, it's much best to start early in life, adults can learn to sing, just as they can learn to play an instrument.

I have come to the conclusion that to sing in tune, amongst possibly other things:

a)        You need a good enough aural memory to be able to hear in your mind's ear the note that you want to sing just before you sing it, I call this being able to 'auralise', corresponding to 'visualise' for vision.

My own aural memory is good, to the extent that I usually find it better to think out loud than on paper, but not as good as some musicians that I have met, for example my ex wife, a talented multi-instrumentalist who could play many different instruments, nearly all of them very well. Consequently, I can sing well, but am not so good at transcribing tunes to music, or hearing music from the notes on the page, or copying a tune with any other instrument other than my voice, though these other are largely lack of ancillary skills such as finger skills and sight-reading skills. If I was better at those, I would be able to make better use of what reasonably good aural memory I do have.

However, I have poor visual memory, so I struggle to draw well because the moment I close my eyes, or turn away from the subject, the image of it has gone. Similarly, I would expect those with a poor aural memory to struggle to auralise what they intend to sing, and therefore be unlikely to be able to reproduce it accurately.

b)        As with learning any other musical instrument, you need to put in sufficient practice. This point was driven home to me quite forcibly when my voice broke.

As a child, I was in the school choir, and chosen to be one of the three descants. This meant I was one of the three best singers in a school of sixty or seventy. However, when my voice broke, things sounded pretty dire for a while. Knowing that some singers never sing as well with their adult voice as when a child, I thought that this had happened to me, and resigned myself to not being a singer any more.

However, later in my late 20s early 30s, gradually I became aware that, as on my own I growled along to records, or tapes in the car, things were beginning to sound rather better. Consequently, I took a conscious decision to actually practice, with the result that my adult voice ultimately sounded almost as good as my child voice had been, and eventually earned me quite a few positive remarks at folk clubs, etc, when I started performing in public.

Now that I hardly ever practice because of my medical condition, I sometimes find that I relapse into tunelessness, but I can always overcome it by concentration on auralising the tune and by practicing difficult or awkward phrases of it. I've noticed particularly that some tunes in minor keys or old folk modes are significantly more difficult to memorise than most tunes in a major key, also that where the original rendition of a tune on record or wherever was in an awkward key for my voice, I struggle more, because I'm having not just to recall the tune, but also auralise it in a transposed key.

By contrast, neither of my brothers are tone deaf but neither sing well, even though one of them was a good enough musician to become a piping instructor in the Scots Guards.   The other used to *call* himself tone deaf until I pointed out that if he was truly tone deaf he wouldn't like any music whatsoever, whereas in particular he has always been something of a jazz enthusiast.

Whenever someone asks my advice about learning to sing, I always make the two points above as being the most important. There are other things as well: how to get good tone, how to manage one's breathing, how to phrase the words naturally without breaks mid-phrase, but there's no point in discussing anything else until those two basics are acheived.
"""


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Subject: RE: The science of tone-deafness
From: GUEST,999
Date: 06 Aug 12 - 05:03 AM

The difficulty lies also with the way a recipient hears music, whether self or elsewhere generated.

Singing is not just a talent/gift, it is also a discipline. All vocal cords are a potential and what passes through is shaped by the abdomen, throat, tongue, cheeks and lips--each and all owing deference to how one hears it all and the brain assembling aspects to produce specific notes/sounds/overtones.

Thank you, Yorkshire, for the link to the article. It's lengthy and a good 25 minute read for me (that includes a bit of thinking here and there) but worth the time.

###################################

A good friend of mine claims to be tone deaf. Remembering that 'for instance' is not proof (thank you Leo Rosten for "The Joys of Yiddish"), my friend has a phenomenal memory for pieces of music. His memory excels. The question that prompts itself to me is this: if he's tone deaf, how does he know?

###################################

I think that sometimes wolves, orca (a type of dolphin), whales, birds, cats, and frogs get creative with their communications. I heard a wolf (alpha male, 180 lbs, dark hair and very thoughtful cold eyes) give a vocal demonstration that went beyond 'I am here and watch out'. He also said 'I don't need no more blues'.

I was listening to the Morman Tabernacle Choir of frogs one night near Huntingdon, Qc. After ten minutes or so of general agreement as to rhythm, tone and enunciation, along came Jones. From repeated choruses of high-low throat rumbles came a clear voice that produced low-high. The Choir went silent. He did it once more and then was silenced by the mob.

I was privileged to have a robin come at 3-fu#king-15 each morning to try out the old VCs--vocal cords. For two months s/he--I am not an ornithologist (and if you ever conclude I am please don't tell my mom). Each day's ritual song was exact for weeks. Then s/he went off key. Whew. But then again, after a few seconds, Chirps went viral. Honest. There was a good minute where the truth of reality became the reality of truth. And s/he likely never heard Coltrane.

###################################

Chipmunks: need I say more?

###################################

Here ya go.


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Subject: RE: The science of tone-deafness
From: SRD
Date: 06 Aug 12 - 05:10 PM

Sometime I get it right, sometime I get it wrong, it's just pot luck. The trouble is from inside I can't tell the difference, what I hear internally is usually what I think I'm singing outside, recordings have proved me wrong, but it doesn't alter the fact that it sounds right to me at the time.


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Subject: RE: The science of tone-deafness
From: GUEST
Date: 06 Aug 12 - 05:33 PM

> From: SRD
>
> Sometime I get it right, sometime I get it wrong, it's just pot luck. The trouble is from inside I can't tell the difference, what I hear internally is usually what I think I'm singing outside, recordings have proved me wrong, but it doesn't alter the fact that it sounds right to me at the time.

Can I make a suggestion?

Feed the source note(s) - I mean those that you are trying to copy with your voice - monophonically into one side of stereo headphones, and sing into a mike fed back via the other side. Try to get the levels of the two sides as close as possible. As you sing, shift your concentration first to one side, then the other, trying to get them to sound as similar as possible.

If you find that you don't have the right equipment to be able to do that, then with an average soundcard on an average computer you can feed both the source and your voice mike - stereophonically in the normal way - into the PC, and use the PC's mixer app to alter relative volumes of the source and what you're singing so that you can listen first to one then the other.


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Subject: RE: The science of tone-deafness
From: GUEST,Charles Macfarlane
Date: 06 Aug 12 - 05:34 PM

Above was me, forgot to sign it.


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Subject: RE: The science of tone-deafness
From: Barbara
Date: 07 Aug 12 - 01:00 AM

I have a friend who can't carry a tune in a bucket, but loves to sing. What he does is fascinating. Every time he misses the correct pitch, he resets to that key. Two notes later he misses again and the key shifts once more.
Is that common, do you suppose?

And this other thing, about myself. I love to sing harmony, and sometimes I am right on, sometimes not. What I have learned about myself over the years is that if I can hear the note I am singing internally, I am on pitch. If I can't hear it, I'm off. Anyone else have that experience?
Blessings,
Barbara


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Subject: RE: The science of tone-deafness
From: GUEST,Charles Macfarlane
Date: 07 Aug 12 - 04:26 AM

> From: Barbara
>
> I have a friend who can't carry a tune in a bucket, but loves to sing. What he does is fascinating. Every time he misses the correct pitch, he resets to that key. Two notes later he misses again and the key shifts once more.
Is that common, do you suppose?

Probably something similar happens to many people who can't hold to a tune.

> And this other thing, about myself. I love to sing harmony, and sometimes I am right on, sometimes not. What I have learned about myself over the years is that if I can hear the note I am singing internally, I am on pitch. If I can't hear it, I'm off. Anyone else have that experience?

That ties in pretty well with my own experience, as described above. If I can hear internally, 'auralise', what I want to sing fractionally before I need to sing it, I can sing almost anything, if not, I can't. What drew this general finding to my notice was the particular problem of getting the correct starting note to sing unaccompanied. I discovered that if I always sang a song from the same starting note, chosen so the song sat comfortably within my vocal range, I'd 'learn' the sound of it. Thereafter, as long as I wasn't beset by nerves or anything like that, I could auralise it, and wouldn't need to take a note from an instrument. It was almost as though I'd taught myself a limited form of perfect pitch.


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Subject: RE: The science of tone-deafness
From: Janie
Date: 07 Aug 12 - 06:19 PM

Wonderful article, Yy. thanks for posting it. Covers a lot more territory than "tone deafness."


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Subject: RE: The science of tone-deafness
From: GUEST,foggers
Date: 08 Aug 12 - 08:01 AM

Wow what a brilliant and informative article.

I am fascinated by the neuro-science of it and as usual that old nature versus nurture debate is represented here. So the really interesting bit was that the author showed some "modest improvements" when re-tested, as this suggests that the weak connections in the brain were possibly being stimulated to grow as a result of the lessons. So the advice of the vocal coach about lots of regular practice is spot on; its the only way to push those brain cells into growing some new connections!

And that also helps to make sense of the different singing habits in different cultures; if you are raised in a culture where communal singing is an everyday experience then your brain gets the necessary stimulus early on (and young brains adapt much faster too).


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Subject: RE: The science of tone-deafness
From: Roger the Skiffler
Date: 08 Aug 12 - 09:52 AM

Perhaps what we are is Tone-dumb? I can hear perfectly well what I want to sing but it never comes out that way. As I pose as "Tone deaf Lime Clinton" perhaps I should change my aka.

RtS


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