Sunday, August 24, 2008

Why people think they can’t sing

First of all welcome to any of you who may have come across this blog via the BBC website. The folks at Last Choir Standing have kindly put a link to my blog on their Useful Resources page. I hope you enjoy my ramblings! Do take some time to check out the archives since I’ve covered a lot of ground since I first started this blog on choirs and singing back in December 2006. And please do feel free to make a comment – it gets kind of lonely blogging into the empty ether!

I posted several questions last week that have been posed on the Last Choir Standing website. I fully intend to discuss them more fully later, but since I’m still on holiday this week, I decided to make a shorter, less brain-taxing post! So do stay tuned.

I covered the subject of people not thinking they can sing back in December last year (But I can’t sing!). I was reminded of the subject again this week whilst watching daytime TV on Channel 4 (you see: I am on holiday!). They were encouraging a diverse bunch of people to sing one line each of “Oh I do like to be beside the seaside” then they stitched the thing together into a whole song. But one woman refused to sing. First of all she said she couldn’t sing, then she said she had a horrible voice, then she said her voice was really gravelly and not nice to listen to. Finally she did sing a part of the line (beautifully I might add!), but cut it short saying: “That’s all you’re going to get”.

There was clearly a huge mismatch between what she thought she sounded like and what she actually sounded like. We all get embarrassed by our own voices. We’ve all had that experience of hearing our recorded voice for the first time and realising that it sounds nothing like the voice we have in our head. That’s understandable since we are hearing our voice from a very different perspective, projected across space rather than through bone and gristle. But I think it’s more than that. We somehow have an internal perception of how our voice sounds to others and are shocked when it doesn’t match reality. It’s rather similar to when we catch sight of ourselves in a mirror and we don’t look as beautiful as we think we do! At the extreme, this is called body dysmorphia and is thought to be the basis of illnesses like bulimia and anorexia.

Of course most people don’t have such a drastic mismatch, but I wonder if there is something similar at work here? Our brains maintain an internal map of our body, but sometimes there is a malfunction between what we see and what our internal map is telling us. As well as the illnesses mentioned above, this is also the cause of the phantom limbs sometimes experienced by amputees. Although they can see that the limb is no longer there, their internal body map still gives them the internal sensation that it is there. Hence the mismatch. What if something similar goes on with sound? Maybe there’s an internal version of the body map which gives us the sensation of our own voice, but when we hear a recording of our voice, there is a mismatch. I’m sure it is much more complicated than that since our voices are an integral part of ourselves and are also connected to our emotions and memories also, not just our hearing.

So the woman who was reluctant to sing may have an internal sensation of her voice being unattractive or gravelly. Perhaps she has never heard a recording of her voice, or if she has she might have not believed what she heard. After we’ve heard recordings of our voices many times, the mismatch between what we hear in our head and what the recording device is telling us starts to become less. Eventually we might even get to like what we hear! Perhaps if this woman experienced hearing her own voice more often, she could grow to love it.

This is just one possibility, of course, and I’ve mentioned some others in my previous post. Maybe someone many years ago told her that they didn’t like her voice because it was too gravelly and that opinion stuck. Or maybe her own sense of a ‘singing’ voice is one that is high pitched and not low like hers. But maybe, just maybe, if her voice was played back to her more often, then she would get used to it and be able to share her beautiful voice with the rest of the world.

Another possibility is that a person is trying to sing in the wrong part for their comfortable range. I’ve written on this in But I can’t sing that high!

Have any of you come across any other reasons why people think they can’t sing?

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Chris Rowbury


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