Why Are Some People So Bad at Singing?
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Why Are Some People So Bad at Singing?

[ ♪INTRO ] You probably know someone who says they’re
tone-deaf. And hey, you might believe it. I mean, you’ve heard their off-key version
of “Happy Birthday.” And when it comes to karaoke night…Well,
you just appreciate their enthusiasm. In reality, though, there’s a difference between
singing off-key and being truly tone-deaf. Your friend might not be able to carry a tune
for all kinds of reasons, but for those with congenital amusia, the situation is pretty
simple: Their brains just can’t perceive musical pitches. It seems to happen thanks to specific changes
in their brains. And by understanding how it all goes down,
scientists are figuring out more about how we process music in general. Maybe unsurprisingly, music is really important
to our species. Like, babies can tell the difference between
two melodies before they can even talk. And every culture on Earth has some form of
music. Researchers think we may have evolved to love
it because it’s so useful for bonding with other people. I mean, who doesn’t like a good Karaoke
night? So it makes sense that true tone-deafness
is pretty rare, no matter how many people might tell you they’re tone-deaf. The truth is, congenital amusia probably affects
less than 2% of the population. People with it, also known as amusics, truly
can’t hear the difference between two pitches. In general, they can’t recognize a familiar
tune without the lyrics or pick out a wrong note in a song they do know. And you know that cringy sound of dissonance
that you hear when two notes clash? Well, if you do, you probably aren’t tone-deaf. For people with congenital amusia, researchers
have said that a concert sounds like a foreign speech — just meaningless noise. Fortunately, amusia generally only affects
people’s perception of music, so they don’t have trouble hearing non-musical sounds. Like, amusic people can still tell people
apart by their voices and pick out different noises in their environment. They just can’t hear pitch. This disorder affects slightly more women
than men, and it’s strongly tied to genetics. For instance, a 2007 study looked at 71 members
of 9 families that had at least one amusic person in them. And it found that 39 % of people with amusia
also had first-degree relatives with the disorder. Right now, we don’t know exactly which genes
are responsible for this condition. But we do know that amusia seems to be connected
to differences in the brain. Specifically, differences in a region called
the right inferior frontal gyrus. This area may be important for processing
and remembering musical pitches. Scientists are still debating the exact biological
root of amusia, but some MRI studies show that people with congenital amusia have less
white matter there. White matter helps carry information around
the brain. So researchers believe that a lack of it could
be a sign of less traffic between key parts of the brain that are involved in hearing
music. But not everyone who’s a bad singer has
an actual genetic disorder that makes them tone-deaf. Some people can hear pitches fine; they just
can’t reproduce them. There are all sorts of steps that happen in
your brain between when you hear a pitch and when you try to reproduce it — and a disconnect
anywhere along the way can throw you off key. There are a few ideas about where that breakdown
might happen. Some research suggests that poor singers just
don’t have precise control of their larynx, so even though they hear the right pitch correctly,
they just can’t reproduce it. Other studies have suggested that it’s a
wiring issue. Most people hear a note and then their vocal
muscles get together and reproduce that same note. But for some people, the mapping might be
off — like, every time they hear a B-flat, their brains might map it to the motor pathways
that make, say, a C. Then there’s even support for the idea that
off-key singers just have a bad musical memory — so by the time they’re ready to imitate
the note they’ve heard, they’ve already forgotten it. There may not be one single answer, because
no one explanation describes all poor-pitch singers perfectly. People also respond differently to things
like accompaniment and training, which can help some people reproduce a melody — but
not everyone. All of this points to the idea that music
doesn’t target just one place in the brain. It’s a whole network of connected parts,
and differences in any given region can alter how you perceive or produce music. In the end, there are plenty of reasons a
person might be bad at singing without being tone-deaf. Because singing well relies on many different
elements — not just hearing. And if any one of them fails, well, you might
skip the next karaoke night. Thanks for watching this episode of SciShow
Psych! And thanks to our patrons for supporting free
education on the internet. We couldn’t do this without you. And if you’re not a patron but you like
what we do here at SciShow, you can learn about supporting us at patreon.com/scishow. [ ♪OUTRO ]

100 thoughts on “Why Are Some People So Bad at Singing?

  1. This is really fascinating. I can't even imagine what being truly tone deaf means… what would the world sound like? Would everyone seem to be speaking in monotone voices all the time?

  2. Amusics may be those people who's only comment ever about a song is "it has a good beat".

    It reminds me of people looking at a collection of 300 CDs that everyone who looks at it finds something they like, but for one person who looked puzzled and said exactly this, "I guess I just like the beat."
    Amusia, tone deaf, I don't know.

  3. I can listen to another singer and find myself working the muscles in my larynx for how to reproduce the foundation of the sound, then then feeling some muscles moving that shape that sound. It continues to imaging where it might resonate and how to cause that. This happens before I make any sound. It may be a half hour after listening to a performance that I recall that sound and feeling when I make my first attempt to reproduce and refine the sound aloud. Sometimes the first sound out of me gets surprisingly close.

  4. "they may have simply already forgotten the note"

    Damn son, you got me there. Worst part is, I can hear the freaking correct note in my head… But the brain to mouth but just doesn't always play out.

    Kind of pathetic since I had so much extensive musical training growing up.

  5. this is fascinating to me as someone with perfect pitch, for years as a kid i always assumed everyone could recognize pitches and they were just singing poorly on purpose 😂 great video! would love to see an opposite video explaining perfect pitch, because it seems like theres still no conclusive answer to that either

  6. Sadly, Linda Ronstadt lost her ability to sing because of progressive supranuclear palsy. She announced her retirement from singing in 2011.

  7. you can't evolve to love it because it's useful to connect to other people with because you need to love it FIRST, and then you can bond around it. That's like saying you've evolved to like food because otherwise you'd be the only one with nothing to do around the dinner table. It's the complete wrong way around.

  8. Interestingly, many people that can't really sing so well can sing old favorites like Happy Birthday or some other song, perfectly.

  9. I acutally never heard of the concept of being tone-deaf, and never really thought about it even though I can't sing; considering tones and melodie… Really interesting video, personally, I would "confirm" that I just can't produce the sounds I hear … and can't really remember melodies that are more complex. 😀

  10. Again, I really like this host, but I ALWAYS have to speed the videos up to 1.25, because his vocal delivery is slow. He seems to have the positive personality that fits the 1.25 speed though.

  11. I have a feeling one of my relatives has slight amusia. I could play a song she knows on my horribly out-of-tune, broken piano and chances are she won’t know the difference. Meanwhile I’m sitting on the bench cringing.

  12. Of course there are people who have ruined their voices. I used to sing 1st and 2nd Soprano, until I smoked for a couple of decades. Now my voice is much lower and not nearly as pretty.

  13. That would be so sad to be truly tone deaf. I love music so much. It just kills me to think there are people out there that cant enjoy it.

  14. One of my teachers in high school we assumed was gone deaf but he loved to sing in the hallway. To “change pitch” he would sing louder or softer to go up and down. In reality he was always on the same monotone note. His favorite artist? Taylor Swift.

  15. Vocal coach: Let's test your musical intelligence, now.
    Try to sing the notes I play on the Piano.

    Vocal coach: (Starts playing the first 5 notes).

    Me: (Foreseeing all the notes before she even plays them).

    Vocal coach: What the sandwich f–?

  16. So, why do most people sound terrible when they sing out loud while listening with earphones on? Or, people who experience physical pain when others sing off-key?

  17. I’m learning to sing myself (choir and singing lessons to be specific) and it makes me notice how good some people’s strength is. Unfortunately for me, I have pitch but my voice is a little too quiet

  18. Simple answer: they don't have relative pitch.

    Relative pitch is a musician's term.
    You can sing a note, then, every following note is exactly (or the opposite) 'tuned' acording to the first one. You can't fail this way.
    Best live musicians have this ability, because when failing a note, it'ss instantaneously recognized and corrected, because it's compared to the internalized first note.

    You have to practice INTERVALS first, in order to reproduce ''right'' notes. Then, you just ''feel'' them without thinking. You can not only hear, you really feel when you're off key.
    That's what a mere musician does: feel the note, and express those emotions, in music.

  19. I don't go to karaoke to hear good singing.
    I go to karaoke to get drunk with my friends, listen to the multitude of bad singers and the few good singers, and applaud after they are done: either cause I liked their singing or I'm glad its over. But they get applause regardless.

  20. I wonder if they can decipher changes in vocal inflection, affecting their ability to recognise emotions in the voice

  21. I’m really worst singer ever and I don’t care! I sing because I like it and I’m happy and sorry if your ears are bleeding. Don’t hate me because you’re not me.

  22. I can pick out pitches just fine. I just can't reproduce them at all. It literally just comes out wrong and I cannot seem to fix it lol

  23. I know someone who sings a lot, makes videos of herself singing, and is never on key at any given moment while singing lol. She listens to her videos and recordings, but seems to have no problem with it. A mutual friend once told her she was singing off key, she got really offended and even cried. I do wonder what makes her completely unaware of being so off key, because it's agony to suffer through and it would be great if she could recognize and improve, or if I could never hear it again

  24. it's better that I can appreciate other people's singing. I can't read music (I've tried to learn, it just doesn't stick), or reproduce tunes at all. I don't sing aloud or karaoke. I would only be paid to stop singing.

  25. Singing comes down to the listener. Everyone can sing good to someone. Look at all that new rap crap that came out. 90% of the population know they suck.

  26. Can't carry a tune in a bucket with a lid on it. Glad I'm not alone.
    In elementary school I was 'invited not to come back' to community choir after 2 years. My mom relayed that choir was for those who can sing or could improve.
    I sing my heart out while driving so apologizes if you had to hear it. I 'dance' with enthusiasm so you can giggle at that 😄

  27. Does scishow have a required words per minute so that people can keep up? I feel like all the hosts do a good job keeping a pace that most people can keep up with.

  28. I'd bet it's a variety of things for people who are just bad. I've been told by a music teacher that anyone can learn, as long as they're not actually tone deaf

  29. I'm a singer, and I've been a vocal coach for a few years. I've worked with people of all ages and I still have never met anyone who was uncapable of improving with constant training. Granted, non of them were really tone deaf. But a lot of them were still pretty bad, and went from terrible to great, or at least acceptable.

  30. I have been singing karaoke about once a week (and it used to be much more often like 3-4 nights a week) and I have gone from being a terrible singer to a mediocre singer. There are some songs that I am able to do an okay job on, but whatever. I enjoy it, the people in the bars I go to don't hate it, and it is fun. Everyone should sing if they have fun doing it. And even if you don't sing, karaoke crowds are among the most friendly and accepting people in the world. <3 <3 <3

  31. I feel like I have a very good musical hearing, not perfect pitch of course but still. However, I suck at singing and I realise how off I am when I sing, but I just can't control it, I don't control my vocals. Exactly like what you described with larynx and so on

  32. I was a pretty good singer when I was young. Then I hit my second puberty at 13 and my voice is permanently cracked, and hasn't changed in the 19 years since. I always wanted to be the frontwoman of a band, but that dream is long dead…

  33. I love music so much and singing karaoke☺🎶🎧🎤on my phone "Smule"just for fun of course.I am not perfect but hope I don't hurt others ears🤭.There are a couple of people I know ,that no matter how much they sing the same song over &over ..they sing in one tone always😖🙉I think they do not recognize the different pitches or they just don't care to try to sing it right.🤷

  34. would you guys be willing to do a video on female asd? it’s under recognized and many of us are misdiagnosed at first because the symptoms are different in some ways from male asd. as a female with asd 1, i want more people to understand that autism can affect women and what the symptoms may be and how it’s different from person to person

  35. On the topic of experiencing music…so I had watched the older video on Scishow-plain on ASMR and was wondering if that is the same as a "frisson." What are the differences between ASMR and a frisson? I admit not diving into the primary lit for this, yet, but my causal searches via Ecosia/Google only lead me to some Reddit threads and a BuzzFeed article. I definitely can experience the sensations best described as a frisson when listening to my favorite tunes but would that be the same as ASMR? I've listened to ASMR tracks and I find the ones with environmental sounds as really calming background audio while working alone, but I don't get those 'ASMR' tingles. Is there a physiological/neurological difference between frissons and ASMR? Has there been any new literature on ASMR since the older vid or any on frissons?

  36. I have ADHD, got Diagnosed with 27.
    Hearing different instruments, melodys, separating it was impossible to me.
    The first time I tooked ADHD meds was eye opening. I could suddenly differentiate the different instrument, seperating it, meds allowed to learn this skill. Now I can do this without medication

  37. How does tone-deafness work in countries like China and Japan where they use tone to differentiate words as sememes? Can't they talk properly? Or is does it work differently?

  38. I’ve had a few years of formal musical training, and I have a pretty good ear for music. I can usually sing on pitch pretty accurately, even by myself. I’m more of an instrumentalist than a singer though. I get more enjoyment from playing piano or guitar than I do from singing. Part of that might just be because I don’t like my singing voice that much though.

  39. Hmm, it sounds like I'm not tone deaf then, but I wouldn't say I can hear differences in pitch "just fine" as the video indicated either. I CAN hear differences in pitch, but only striking ones. Subtle differences sound pretty much the same. Perhaps related, perhaps not, I'm also 'deaf' to subtle differences in the way words, especially foreign words, are pronounced. I can't count how many times someone's tried to help me pronounce a word right by slowly repeating, and I just don't get how the thing I'm saying isn't the thing they're saying…and a few times I've had someone say, "No, you're saying ___, but it's ___"…and yeah, what THEY'RE saying in those two instances sounds identical too.

  40. There were two kids in my high school who'd taken years of voice lessons and were still horrible, but kept insisting on singing at people because, having worked so hard at it, they thought they were great. I wonder what part of the brain is responsible for that.

  41. Now i know why I'm so bad at recognizing pitches, whenever my mom tells me something, it goes in one ear, then comes out the other.

    I'm convinced.

  42. This makes it sound like there's people who can't sing and know it and willingly admit it, and people with no sense of pitch, but leaves out something that in my experience seems to be far more common – people who can't sing but that also don't realize how badly they sing, or when others also can't sing or play well. I would have chalked this up to amusia, as I now know it's called, but for two reasons I also now know that's not it. For one, I always wondered how these people were able to enjoy music – surely with no sense of it, it would just be noise – and apparently, that's correct for people who truly have amusia, but that doesn't describe the people I'm talking about. Second, based on how apparently rare it is, it also doesn't make sense that this would be the majority. So, what is it?

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