Despite the hilarity of early-season "American Idol" episodes, nearly everyone can carry a tune, new research shows.
Of those who can't, there are two types — those that know they sound bad and those that think they sound fine.
In a series of studies led by researchers at the University of Finance and Management in Warsaw and the University of Montreal, more than 150 people in Canada and Poland were asked to sing familiar songs — such as Quebec's version of "Happy Birthday" – as a capella solos. In the final study, 40 people were also asked to sing isolated notes after hearing them played once.
To control for self-selection, the majority of subjects were initially unaware the study would involve singing. While none balked at the task, many joked about having a terrible voice.
They needn't have worried. The researchers found that more than 90 percent of the participants could sing in tune. And almost 100 percent nailed each melody's timing.
The results, most of which are detailed in the February 2007 issue of the Journal of the Acoustical Society of America, will be presented July 2 in Paris at the largest ever meeting on the science of acoustics.
Among out-of-tune singers, lead researcher Simone Dalla Bella explained, "there are two categories of people." The majority is tone deaf; they can't hear when a note is off and have no idea they are singing poorly. But there are also lousy singers with great hearing ability — those who can accurately say whether an instrument is properly tuned or a sung note is off-key. These squawkers know they are singing badly but, for some unknown reason, cannot correct themselves. They are, in a sense, tone mute.
While some tone-challenged people may benefit from training, Dalla Bella doubts that they can all learn to carry a tune. For a small fraction of the population, warbling well may be impossible.
So should everyone else be on MTV?
"I am not saying that most people are as good as professional singers in every task," Dalla Bella explained. The studies measured pitch and timing, but not timbre or musical expression. Also, many recreational songbirds are only in-tune when singing slowly.
Evolutionarily speaking, carrying a melody's timing may be more important than its tune. Singing as a group is popular in cultures worldwide, and researchers hypothesize that singing together strengthens social bonds. While crooning off-key can be muffled by other voices, belting out when everyone else pauses is sure to garner unwanted attention.
As for the first episodes of "American Idol," Dalla Bella explained that hearing a song out of tune strikes us in a similar way as hearing a word mispronounced. "The usual reaction," he said, "is laughter."
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Robin Nixon is a former staff writer for Live Science. Robin graduated from Columbia University with a BA in Neuroscience and Behavior and pursued a PhD in Neural Science from New York University before shifting gears to travel and write. She worked in Indonesia, Cambodia, Jordan, Iraq and Sudan, for companies doing development work before returning to the U.S. and taking journalism classes at Harvard. She worked as a health and science journalist covering breakthroughs in neuroscience, medicine, and psychology for the lay public, and is the author of "Allergy-Free Kids; The Science-based Approach To Preventing Food Allergies," (Harper Collins, 2017). She will attend the Yale Writer’s Workshop in summer 2023.