60-Second Science

Secrets of Bad Singing

A study finds that most people actually can carry a tune fairly well--and why those who can't just keep singing. Karen Hopkin reports, assisted by Mel F. Louis

[The following is an exact transcript of this podcast.]

On the June 30th podcast, you heard some bad singing. Clearly a lot of people think they can sing—just look at the enormous crowds that show up to audition for American Idol. But how many people can actually stay in key? [Sound of bad singing.]

Scientists think they have an answer, which they presented at a conference on acoustics in Paris on July 2nd. In the first part of the study, the researchers stopped people at random in a Montreal park and asking them to sing Quebec’s anthem. In that park, turns out 40 out of 42 people sounded as good as the pros. That percentage is surprisingly high. Which makes the two people who couldn’t sing especially interesting—why couldn’t they carry a tune? [More bad singing sound.]

The researchers repeated the experiment, this time asking people to sing Jingle Bells. They then tested the bad singers’ ability to listen to some music and identify the sour notes. They found that the off-pitch crooners fall into two classes. Those who simply can not hear that they’re hitting the wrong notes. And those who can tell, but keep singing anyway. [More bad singing sound.]

—Karen Hopkin, with Mel F. Louis

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