The Real Reason Not Everyone Can Sing In Tune

At one point or another, we've all put on a concert while riding along in the car or in the shower. Although we may feel like we've put on a top-rated performance, it never sounds as good out loud as it does in our heads. If we're honest with ourselves, we are miles away from pitch perfect. According to Forbes, subvocalization may be the reason why some of us can't carry a tune.  

Subvocalization is what happens when we sing the lyrics of a song or sentence in our heads. In preparation for singing or reading, unknowingly, our facial muscles and other parts of the body are moving during this process. According to a 2018 paper, when study participants imagined what they were singing before actually singing aloud, they had fewer problems with staying in tune (via Forbes). However, when participants moved their bodies to prepare for singing, they had more issues with singing in tune.

Singing too fast affects your tune

A study in The Journal of the Acoustical Society of America suggests that tempo, or how fast or slow we sing, may be responsible for whether or not we sing in tune. The study asked people who sang occasionally to sing a familiar song in a laboratory and natural setting. The study found that occasional singers sang on pitch just as well as professional singers at a slower tempo. However, when they performed the songs at a faster tempo, more pitch errors were present.

The inability to carry a tune comes from being deficient in one of these three areas: "pitch accuracy, the ability to keep time, and note memory (remembering the words and how long a note is sustained)," according to Discover Magazine. It is not uncommon for singers, trained or untrained, to have less than perfect pitch. In fact, Scientific American reports that out of 10,000 people, only one to five will have perfect pitch.

Genetics may be at play

If you've noticed that no one in your family can sing in tune, you may be on to something. Experts have suggested that the ability to sing in tune may be directly linked to genetics. Some years ago, Dr. Joseph Profita, a psychiatrist and jazz club musician, developed a test that can detect pitch from analyzing family genes (via The New York Times). Dr. Profita found evidence that children and a 50/50 chance of inheriting the gene for perfect pitch if one of the parents carried it.

Singing in tune can be more complicated than what meets the ears. Bryan Nichols, an assistant music professor at the Pennsylvania State University, told The New York Times more recently, "Perfect pitch isn't required for good singing." Nichols suggests his research students choose songs that they enjoy singing and to sing it in a range that feels comfortable for their voice. So, whether you're in tune or not, you should sing anyway.