Most people believe that you must possess a special talent to sing. I have found to my delight in over 15 years of teaching experience that this really isn't true. So with that in mind, I would like to share with my readers what I have found to be the cause of being "tone-challenged" and what I've been able to come up with to help those who dream of singing well and in tune but find they simply "can't". Actually they "can"!
Singing in tune is not some mysterious ability. When we sing a group of different pitches the larynx, or voice box, must adjust or rock to stretch the vocal cords. According to www.singwise.com: "The cricothyroid muscle lengthens and stretches the vocal folds...it arises from the cricoid cartilage and attaches to the inferior horn and lower margin of the thyroid cartilage. When it contracts, it pulls the thyroid cartilage ...increasing the distance between the thyroid and arytenoid cartilages and stretching and tensing the vocal fold. The action of the cricothyroid tilts the thyroid cartilage down, increasing the front-to-back distance of the larynx, and thus placing the vocal folds under increased tension. This action is often referred to as the 'laryngeal tilt' or ‘rocking/pivoting the larynx’, and is important in being able to sing higher pitches." The inability to perform this anatomical function accurately is not due to an inability to hear the notes correctly, but a lack of coordination between the ear and the movements of the larynx. All children learn how to do this as long as they have plenty of opportunity to sing so that this natural coordination develops.
What has happened to most adults who struggle to sing in tune is that they heard/felt a message as a child (often by a careless adult) that they had a "bad" voice and could not sing. This makes most kids feel devastated/embarrassed and as a result they simply stop singing. When a child doesn't sing, unfortunately this coordination is not learned or practised and the inability to sing in tune stays with them through adulthood.
The good news is adults can learn this skill, and with some practice and patience they can still develop this coordination and go on to develop a pleasing and in-tune singing voice. They have to learn it through the same process as kids do. Most children learn to sing by approximating pitch by speak-singing (chanting) songs rythmically without trying to be completely pitch accurate. Quite often they get rhythm mastered before they get pitch. Then they sing in a limited speaking range of pitches and chant the rest. Children learn to be able to make sounds that are higher and lower than a starting pitch at will and experiment with inflecting up their speaking voices. We often think of sound making rather than singing by imitating animals such as hoot owls, monkeys, cats, dogs, gorillas and so on, with the sound feeling free easy and spontaneous. The other way that probably all children learn to sing accurately is the taunt, which I believe is something kids do universally. "na na na na na!" on a melody 5-3-6-5-3, which in the key of C is G-E-A-G-E. Notice that it's all done without strain and in play.
- Here are some examples of what you can do no matter what your age: Have someone play a pitch near middle C on the piano. Then try to sing it. Then see if you can determine whether what you sang was higher, lower or matching. Often the less you try to sing in tune the easier it will be to be accurate.
- Play a pitch on the piano in an easy range and then sing a tone within the same octave that is higher on purpose. Then sing something lower than the tone again on purpose. Then try to sing the pitch accurately.
- Have someone play a pitch. Try to hear the pitch in your imagination. If you can really hear it in your mind then try to reproduce it with your voice. This usually takes a bit of slowing yourself down, which is so important for this type of learning.
- Practice chanting a favorite song, or a simple child's song in rhythm before adding pitch.
- Practice singing the "universal taunt". Add your own words to it but keep the melody.
I have worked with many non-singing, tone-challenged adults on pitch accuracy with 100% results (unless there is a physical problem). No one who wants to sing in tune is unable to if they are motivated to do so. Singing is a joy that is part of being human and an innate part of our self-expression!