Can anyone learn to sing?

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I can’t sing. I’m tone deaf. I can’t carry a tune in a bucket.

We’ve all heard people say these things, and maybe even said them about ourselves. Which brings us to the question:

Can anyone learn to sing?

The answer is, yes! Not everyone will be a Pavarotti, of course, but everyone can learn to sing better than they presently do.

Here’s the logic behind – answer these questions:

  • Do you have vocal cords?
  • Are you able to make sound with your vocal cords?

If you answered yes to the two above questions, then you can sing. Right?

Well, maybe. If you are truly tone deaf, then chances are you can’t sing. Amusia, the technical term for tone deafness, is a perceptual problem. Someone who is tone deaf is unable to carry a simple tune or pick out differences in pitch. But does that mean if you can’t hear or match slight variations in pitch then you are tone deaf? No, certainly not! Scientists are still in disagreement where to draw the dividing line between a lack of training or even exposure to music and Amusia. So if you are able to very basically distinguish high pitches from lower ones you are probably not tone deaf.

The same goes for being born deaf – if you can’t hear then you probably can’t sing (although there is research out there that suggests this is changing).

Let’s assume for the rest of the article that you have:

  • working vocal cords
  • are not tone deaf
  • were not born deaf

Does that mean I can learn to sing?

In most cases when people say they can’t sing, it’s more likely they don’t know how to use their voice; their instrument.

Imagine taking a music lesson for the first time. Imagine your favorite instrument; the one you’ve always dreamed of playing – for me it is the violin. So I’m at my first violin lesson. The first time I pull the bow across the strings a horrible screeching sound emits from the violin. Awful! I try a few more times and the sounds only get worse. It’s not that I’m inherently terrible at playing the violin; it’s just that I don’t yet have the skills to play it.

Continue to take lessons and don’t give up after your first try, youI will begin to see improvements. You can play some basic scales and maybe even some beginner music. You’re building the required skills and coordination to play the violin. The same sort of dedication and work is required to develop your voice.

Instead of assuming that you’re tone deaf or lack talent, realize that you may just need some coaching from a teacher trained to recognize your vocal challenges and help you get past your supposed limitations. Your voice can change and get better!

What are my next steps?

First: Train your “musicianship” and with it your “musical ear.”

Once you start to hear and achieve better pitch a trained ear will tell you when you are flat or sharp. It will also help you know when you are in time with the music, which is crucial for working on songs. If you can achieve perfect pitch but have no idea if you are on the beat, off the beat, under the beat, or over the beat, then what use will it be?

Musicianship consists of more than just ear training. The Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music syllabus for their Practical Musicianship exam defines it as follows:

“Musicianship is a broad concept that covers a complex range of musical abilities…it is loosely defined as the ability to ‘think in sound’. This occurs when a musician is able to produce music which they perceive internally and in the imagination, whether through playing by ear, singing, reading from notation, or through improvisation.”

It’s is your experience and artistry as a singer.

Everything you do and learn as a singer builds your musicianship. Do you think Beyonce just woke up one day and knew how to do amazing licks and trills? No, she had to work at it. She had to build up her musicianship and her musical knowledge of what notes work with what chords, and how to use licks and trills effectively in songs.

Musicianship is something that can and can’t be taught, it comes with experience and practice. It is a key element in becoming a great singer.

How do you build up your musicianship skills?

  • Listen to different singers
  • Listen to different styles
  • Listen to different genres
  • Learn some music theory
  • Learn another instrument to help train your musical ear
  • Experiment with your voice and songs in different genres
  • Practice!!!

It’s important that you don’t get frustrated. Don’t try and rush it. Building your musicianship will take time and energy, but it’s well worth the effort because it can take you from being a good singer to a great singer.

Second: Study with a TBS Recommended Instructor who will help you with your pitch problems by showing you how to handle your instrument correctly. The exercises you get will help you achieve the correct pitch. Once you have those exercises you will need to practice, practice, practice!

So, this has been a long answer to a seemingly simple question, ‘Can anyone learn to sing?’ At TBS we believe that yes, most people can learn to sing.

However, depending on the severity of the vocal issues, it will take some time and effort on your part. With the right teacher and lots of practice, you can get there!

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Photo of Tom Bathgate
Tom Bathgate is an Advanced Certified IVA Instructor and has been teaching voice lessons in Edinburgh for the last 10 years. As well as teaching, Tom is one of the 9 Founding Directors of the Institute for Vocal Advancement.