I’ve sung all my life, and I’m rather good at it–good enough that people sometimes actually pay me to sing. Yet I’ve had friends whom people might very well pay NOT to sing. Why is it that some of us can sing, and some can’t?

Physiologically, there’s no reason at all. Singing is really just a form of modified speech, so anyone who can talk ought to be able to sing.

As I’ve written about before, there are four major functions that have to be coordinated in order for us to speak or sing: breathing, phonation, resonance and articulation.

Air must be expelled for a sound to be made. How forcefully that happens determines how much and how rapidly air is expelled, which in turn plays an important role in determining the volume and duration of the sound produced.

Phonation, the actual making of a sound, happens in the larynx, a muscular tube that contains two folds of mucous membrane, called the vocal folds, with a gap between them called the glottis. Each fold encloses an elastic vocal ligament. In normal breathing these ligaments are slack, allowing air to pass silently in and out through the wide-open glottis. To produce a sound, muscles tighten the ligaments. Air now must be forced through the much narrower glottis, which causes the folds to vibrate, producing sound. The tighter the muscles contract the vocal folds, the higher the pitch of the sound produced, just as a guitar string makes a higher pitch the tighter it is tuned.

Resonance amplifies the sounds being produced. It involves the throat, the mouth, the nose, the nasal sinuses and the chest cavity. Just like banging on a steel drum sound different than banging on a tin can, so differences in the size and shape of these resonating areas produces different noises in different people.

Finally, there’s articulation, the process of forming the sound into words through complex maneuvers with the lips, tongue and soft palate of the mouth, and of related facial muscles.

Whether we call a particular sound singing or speech is partly cultural, but in general singing requires prolongation of the vowels and a greater range of pitches, qualities that are pretty well ignored in speech, and this is where the singer and the non-singer part company.

People who sing have learned to use their voices to produce precise pitches. People who don’t sing have not. There’s rarely a physiological reason: studies indicate that almost every small child can match their voice to pitches played for them on a piano or other insturment. But that ability requires practice to develop, and, like any other natural ability, while it comes easily to some people, for others it comes hard.

Skating provides a good analogy. Most small children are at least able to stand up on a pair of skates and move in some sort of fashion across the ice, but unless they continue to practice that ability as they grow older, they’ll never get any better at it. If they can skate no better as an adult than they could as a three year old, we’d say they can’t skate, even though they possess the basic ability to do so. And even of those who learn to skate, only a few will make it to the Olympics.

It’s the same way with singers. People who started singing as children and continued to sing as they grew older are usually able to sing as adults. People who, as children, either stopped singing or (as happens distressingly often) were told they “can’t sing,” perhaps because they’re not yet very good at matching pitches, or the sound of their voice didn’t please some teacher or choir leader or other, will probably not be able to sing as adults. And of those who can sing, only a few will make it to the Metropolitan Opera House.

Now, it’s true that some people have more attractive singing voices than others due to the aforementioned differences in resonating body cavities. There’s not much you can do about that. But with practice, almost anyone can learn to at least sing on-pitch and in-tempo–in other words, to make the most of the voice they have.

Trained singers have a number of “tricks of the trade.” For example, the voice box has a naturally tendency to rise and fall as the pitch of the voice rises and falls. This movement interferes with the singer’s fine control of the vocal folds, and thus produces uneven vocal quality. Singers learn to use the strap muscles of the neck to hold the voice box in relatively constant position, helping them to maintain a uniform vocal quality throughout their range. (Believe me, this is harder than it sounds.)

Another example: singers learn to better “support” their voice–that is, to make better use of the lungs and rib-cage and abdominal, back and chest muscles to generate, direct and modulate the stream of air that causes the vocal folds to vibrate.

Untrained vocalists often try to make their voice louder by increasing the flow of air and also tightening up the throat. A trained singer learns to keep the throat open and relaxed–which produces louder sounds and also saves the voice.

Breathing, resonance, phonation, articulation–singers spend their whole lives learning how best to control each of the processes of making sound, and how to fine-tune those processes to make exactly the kind of sounds needed for the type of music they perform.

Singing comes naturally to some people; for some people it’s a struggle. But with work, anyone can improve.

So the question, “Why is it some people can sing and others can’t?” actually has the same answer as the question, “How do I get to Carnegie Hall?”


Permanent link to this article:

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Easy AdSense Pro by Unreal