Practice is the Key to Good Singing

Posted February 10th, 2015 at 5:00 pm (UTC-4)

Alaskan Huskies howling (Linda Martin/Creative Commons)

Alaskan Huskies howling (Linda Martin/Creative Commons)

Do you think you have a singing voice that makes dogs howl?

Don’t worry because new research shows that practice does indeed make perfect … pitch that is.

Moreover, the research shows that even if you were born with perfect pitch and are a wonderful singer, if you don’t practice or sing frequently you could lose that ability over time.

Researchers at Northwestern University made the discovery and have published their results in a new paper.

The study’s lead researcher Steve Demorest, a professor of music education at Northwestern’s Bienen School of Music says that developing the ability to sing on key may be the same as the kind of practice it takes to become a skilled instrumentalist.

“No one expects a beginner on violin to sound good right away, it takes practice, but everyone is supposed to be able to sing,” Demorest said in a University press release. “When people are unsuccessful they take it very personally, but we think if you sing more, you’ll get better.”

The new Northwestern study tested the singing accuracy (ability to sing on key) of volunteers in three age groups: kindergarteners, sixth graders and college-aged adults.

African Children's Choir performing (Louis/Creative Commons)

Musical education for elementary school-age children such as members of the African Children’s Choir focuses primarily on singing (Louis/Creative Commons)

Rather than have members of each group sing a particular song, the researchers had the volunteer singers listen to four varied repetitions of a single musical note and then sing back what they had heard. In another test the singers were asked to sing back what there heard in scattered intervals.

The researchers used similar methods to gauge the singing accuracy of each of the three groups of volunteers.

After testing each group, the researchers studied their measurement data and found that those who were in the kindergarten to late elementary school groups showed considerable improvement in singing accuracy.

The young-adults didn’t do so well on the tests, compared with their grade school colleagues. The college-age crowd performed their tests at the same level as the kindergarten volunteers in two of three tests given. The researchers said these results suggested the “use it or lose it” aspect of maintaining singing accuracy.

“Our study suggests that adults who may have performed better as children lost the ability when they stopped singing, said Demorest.

But in all fairness the elementary school age children are also given a good deal of musical instruction that’s focused on mostly singing.

As a student gets older and progresses from elementary into higher grades, music, especially singing becomes more of an elective study with only 34 percent of U.S. students actively involved in musical and/or singing instruction and participation. The number of students doing so drops even further as they progress toward high school graduation.

Opera singers like Laura Wright must practice frequently to ensure quality performances (Carl Milner/Creative Commons)

Opera singers like Laura Wright must practice frequently to ensure quality performances (Carl Milner/Creative Commons)

Although older students tend to sing more accurately than younger children, there’s not a lot of data on the singing ability of those between 12 and 18 years old, which the researcher call “an especially formative period, when voices change and there’s high interest in concerts and other forms of musical expression.”

The issue is further complicated since there’s really not a set standard of what accurate singing is nor is there any way at present to reliably measure such abilities.

So Demorest and a colleague and co-author of the study Peter Pfordresher the director of the Auditory Perception and Action Lab at the University at Buffalo in New York, are leading an endeavor that would create a measure of singing accuracy through internet based tools.

Once the online tools are completed, Demorest and Pfordresher hope that music teachers will use them to help children who are struggling with singing as well as by adults who would be able to test their own singing ability by a set measure.

Demorest did acknowledge that the being able to sing on key is easier and more natural for some people than others. But he also said it’s a skill people can learn and, with practice, be able to develop.

Rick Pantaleo
Rick Pantaleo maintains the Science World blog and writes stories for VOA’s web and radio on a variety of science, technology and health topics. He also occasionally appears on various VOA programs to talk about the latest scientific news. Rick joined VOA in 1992 after a 20 year career in commercial broadcasting.

2 responses to “Practice is the Key to Good Singing”

  1. Daughnold Fraengk says:

    I read with interest the article. It was puzzling to see the beautiful picture of Ms. Wright holding a “lollypop.” Amplified opera singing would seem like an oxymoron to the bel canto school. The rationale behind appoggiare is to learn to coordinate larynx and breath control for projected “pear shaped tones” over an orchestra. Once a person’s vocal emissions match desired pitches, then he or she learns a vocal technique, which should address various vocal pathologies, whether they are replaced by an implementation of vowel formants or not. I’m 64 and still practice vocal technique most every day in the same hour or in increments. Planking for the abdominal muscles helps maintain my “bellows” for singing, as well as a shimmer in the sound (instead of age-related wobbling), this, despite the fact that I deal with both Meniere’s (inner ear disease), and, emphysema. If you lack ears and air stay away from stage doors. I, former Marcello, Don Giovanni, Ford, Germont, Rigoletto, Elijah, Tony (M.H.F.), Scarpia, etc.