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See Inside January/February 2012

Can't Carry a Tune? Work Out Your Vocal Muscles

Poor muscle control, not aural perception, underlies most cases of bad singing



Morgan David de Lossy/Corbis

A cringe-worthy chorus of “Happy Birthday” is usually all it takes to earn the label of “tone-deaf.” Yet fewer than 1 percent of the population is truly amusical, that is, lacking the ability to distinguish different pitches. Many more of us simply can’t carry a tune. A study published online in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: General reinforces scientists’ growing belief that the culprit is not the ear but the throat. In a series of pitch-matching experiments, nonmusicians were pretty good at adjusting an instrument to match a specific note, suggesting that they could hear it just fine. They had much more trouble, however, imitating the same note with their own voice. The authors suspect that poor motor control of vocal muscles is partly to blame—findings that reinforce the idea that almost anyone can learn to sing.

This article was originally published with the title "Physically Out of Tune."

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