Music Teacher's Helper Blog

Teaching ‘unmusicality’ – Part I

‘How musical is Man?’

musical manIs musicality ‘natural’ to humans? As a culture, we certainly describe music as something that is somehow ‘innate’ to humans as a species, or at the very least we think of music an especially effective, and deeply rooted, natural mode of human communication. ‘Where words fail, music speaks’ (Hans Christian Anderson), we might quote, or ‘Music tames the savage breast’ (Shakespeare), or ‘Life without music is a mistake’ (Nietzsche). We know we feel better when we make music, in particular with others, whether we play in an orchestra, sing in a choir, or simply jam at home with family or friends.

What is more, our media is brimming with references to new scientific studies confirming how participation in music benefits human health; turning these results around, it seems a small step to take to assume that human health ‘requires’ or is naturally designed to include some form of musical activity. As the anthropologist John Blacking famously posited ‘There is so much music in the world that it is reasonable to suppose that music, like language and possibly religion, is a species-specific trait of man’ (Blacking, 1973, p. 7).

We have all worked with students who appear to have be born able effortlessly to remember melodies, beat even rhythms, sing in tune, and in some cases even move fluidly from one instrument to another with very little additional instruction. We call these students ‘musical’, and it is always a thrill when a new student begins to sing or play for us for the first time and the evidence of this natural propensity for music begins effortlessly to flow.

Not musical enough?

keyboard 1And yet, every music teacher will have had at least one student who is not ‘naturally musical’. For some teachers, it may be the child who cannot immediately match pitch, while for others it may be an adult who, despite a great passion for music and a lifetime of listening, nevertheless struggles to beat four in evenly spaced units of time.

If, as our mythologies of human musicality suggest, Man is ‘naturally’ musical, where do these apparently ‘unmusical’ students come from? What can, and indeed should, we do for our apparently ‘unmusical’ students, and what, if anything, can they offer us as teachers?

Defining ‘unmusicality’

Every student is different of course, so no short summary of typical characteristics of those who do not display natural musicality can appropriately represent any individual case. In the short space available here, it is worth outlining a couple of key features that I have experienced in my own teaching of singing that do seem to be typical in those for whom musicality is more challenging. As anecdotal as this discussion will necessarily be, I’ll offer it up as a starting point for wider discussion. I hope you will add your own experiences in the comments below!

Singing in tune – not as easy as we might think!

tuning forkThe first characteristic of the so-called ‘unmusical’ that will come to mind for many people is the inability to sing in tune. In my experience, this typically takes two forms: those who cannot sing in tune; and those who sing out of tune. While this distinction may at first seem like a classic case of the splitting of musical hairs (and I’m not sure these definitions are the best ones, but they’re the ones I’ll use for now), the difference between these two types of singer is in fact quite significant. Here’s a very abbreviated discussion of how these two types of singer have appeared in my studio and what sort of learning has gone on as a result.

1. Students who sing ‘out of tune’

Students who sing ‘out of tune’ (also referred to as ‘pitchy’ singing) are those who typically sing generally in tune (or at least roughly in the right area for most of the time), but whose pitch is consistently compromised when they sing in certain parts of their range or when they tackle certain types of musical gestures. These singers will be difficult to stand next to in choir, since they may pull other singers around them off the true pitch, but their voices will compromise rather than distort the sound of a larger choir, since in part they are right and in part they are wrong, and sometimes they are in exactly the right place. For these reasons, I’ll call them ‘musically unpredictable’ rather than ‘unmusical’ singers.

These ‘musically unpredictable’ singers often make technical errors that take them away from, or make it difficult for them to discern, the pitches they intend to sing. Using too much breath pressure to sing high notes, for example, will always make these singers go sharp in this area. (If the notes are sung loudly [i.e. with extreme breath pressure], they are usually even more sharp.)

vocal tractTension in the tongue, especially tension that pulls the tongue up and/or back in the mouth while singing, similarly, will always distort the vowel and usually makes these singers go flat, especially on the ‘open vowels’ (eg. Ah and Oh), for which the tongue needs to be forward, low, and flat to get a true sound.

Tongue tension can also cause quite inexact singing – for example, singing in which the first and last notes of a phrase may be in tune, but the intervening or passing notes will be out of tune. This happens because any tension in the tongue is expressed as a flex, or tightness, all the way down to its root. The root is the part of the muscle of the tongue that shares space in the throat with the larynx, which is then inadvertently constricted (stopped from moving freely), just when it needs to be able to float freely so the vocal folds inside the larynx can themselves stretch and relax lightly and freely to pitch the correct notes.

‘Really? But I was sure I was in tune…’

To make working with these ‘musically unpredictable’ singers even more complicated, in many cases, both the ‘sharp’ singer and the ‘flat’ singer will often report thinking and even hearing that they are in tune, despite evidence from others that they are not. In part this happens because of a fascinating phenomenon that amounts to a kind of musical ‘wishful thinking’: when singers intend to sing a note and hold this note in their imagination as they sing, they are much more likely to hear the intended note than the (incorrect) note that they are actually singing.

In other cases, singers may not be aware of their ‘out of tune’ singing for purely physical reasons. Because the production of pitches with the singing voice involves such a complex response from the body, it is possible to be singing the correct pitch, but also to be adding adjacent pitches above or below the intended pitch simultaneously. This can be owing to vibrato, which may be quite wide or inexact if the breath flow is not regular. It can also happen when a singer is pushing the vocal folds out of place unintentionally, for example, by pushing a large volume of breath over them when only a small volume is required.

In this case, the singer will be ‘singing the right note’, but will also be causing an oscillation of the vocal folds back and forth between the pitch they are trying to sing and the pitch their vocal folds are forced to add owing to the extra tension. (Imagine trying to extend an elastic band across your fingers and hold it there while someone else is trying to pull your fingers and you’ll get the picture.) This sort of pitch distortion is simply not always fully evident until the sound has fully left their body and is thus very difficult for the singer her or himself to hear.

Pitchy patches

band aidThese pitch problems are technical and as such can be corrected with the traditional technical methods familiar to every singing teacher. Simple fixes like teaching a student to place the front of the tongue on the back of the lower front teeth as there ‘base position’ can cure a range of these pitch-related ills, in particular when this becomes the natural position of the tongue, even when singing high notes, over time.

This type of ‘out-of-tune’ singing can also be corrected by altering established breathing patterns, in particular those used to ‘support’ high notes, melismas, and long phrases.

As singers’ voices get stronger and more supple through training, for example, much less breath support will be needed to achieve a clear quality in-tune sound on the high notes than they may have had to apply previously. Relaxing and easing off the voice, rather than pushing it, can sweeten the high notes immeasurably and can ‘cure’ what may at first have seemed to be incurable technical imprecision by simple technical means.

What is more, keeping the front of the mouth in an ‘almost closed’ position and narrowing the flow of breath (imagine blowing out a candle on the vowel ‘oo’ rather than ‘ah’) can help singers to gain control of pitch sequences in melismatic writing, especially when singing very quickly. These technical patches work on ‘pitchiness’ most of the time, although of course they can require many months of careful practice on the part of the student to disassemble the network of responses that were behind the old habits while also learning new, healthier and more tuneful, physical responses.

2. Students who ‘cannot sing in tune’

missed the targetFar more interesting from a pedagogical perspective, to my mind, are those so-called ‘unmusical’ students who appear to have no sense of pitch. These are the students who cannot sing in tune, by which I mean they sing entirely outside the desired key or pitch area and seem to have little or no awareness of how far they are off the target sounds and rhythms of the piece they are meant to be singing.

Not surprisingly, students like this do not often show up in the teaching studio, since many of them will have been told they ‘can’t sing’, branded truly ‘unmusical’, and will have been strongly discouraged from participating in music, often from an early age. Adult students who demonstrate this type of apparent ‘unmusicality’ will also typically be very restricted in their musical experience, since they will have been asked to sit out of choir or ‘mouth the words’ in school or in church, and will thus not have had the same exposure to and experience of joint music making that is an integral part of a foundational music education.

Again, there will be many different types of people who fall into this only very roughly conceived category, so of course anything I can say about this here will only be general and will not apply to any specific case. However, in my own experience, those students I have worked with who demonstrate this kind of apparent ‘unmusicality’ have exhibited a number of similar associated characteristics.

I’ll be writing more about this in Part II of this blog, which will appear next month. To whet your appetite, I’ll say that three characteristics of these so-called ‘unmusical’ students that I have found especially interesting from a pedagogical perspective are: 1. The students are not able to hear their own ‘unmusicality’ but have been told by others they cannot sing; 2. The students do not instinctively sing discrete pitches, but rather typically ‘slide’ across note areas; and 3. Those pitches that these students are able to sing tend to be in their speaking range.

In my next blog, I’ll be looking at each of these in turn to see if what I’ve learned from these students, and also to see if anything I’ve experienced correlates in any way with your own experience as teachers. In the mean time, I hope you’ll add your own comments about how you’ve tackled instances of apparent ‘unmusicality’ in your own teaching studios!

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  1. Robin Steinweg

    I hold a pet theory that a tone-deaf person can learn to sing pitches if they want to, and if someone works with them patiently. Never had any takers, though! 🙂 So perhaps it has a whole lot to do with attitude? That and discouragement–getting labeled as unmusical early on is sad. I look forward to your next post, Kathryn.

  2. Katherine Futterer Scott

    I have had several “tone deaf” (I prefer to call it uncoordinated, but it seems to match your “cannot sing in tune” category) students, actually 5 that I can think of immediately. In each case, after about a year of rigorous practice on scales building an “ear-voice” coordination similar to “hand-eye” coordination, there was a sudden transformation from “tone deaf” to tone brilliant. The one similarity between all of these wonderful singers was an naturally better than average resonance in their phonation that was so efficient it made it very difficult for them to hear over themselves to the accompaniment. Now I crank up the volume after a few months of scales and find great performance is within their grasp. I have way more issues working bad technique out of people in category 1 than I do building good technique in category 2. Plus I just love being part of the incredibly intimate and joyful reveal of a brand spanking new voice!

  3. Kathryn

    Thanks for these great comments, Robin and Katherine! It is very interesting to wonder what the ingredients are, and of course each student is different. Attitude certainly plays a part but in my experience so far hearing – or undeveloped or imprecise hearing perception – seems to predominate. The theory about exceptional phonation is very interesting. Will have to try to play more loudly! Thanks again for your comments… more on this topic next month!

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