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It may seem as a kinda dumb question, and I'm totally aware of this. But, what I'm going to ask may be specific enough to not get closed:

I've been playing guitar and also a few other instruments for quite a while now, but I just can't sing. I can hear a melody in my head, but even if I try to hit the first note, I will fail very often. Now what I want to ask is, can anyone learn to sing in a manner that "won't hurt the ear of a non-musician"? I'm not asking if anyone could be the next Freddie Mercury, but does anyone have the ability to sing some backing vocals if needed, without just sounding terrible?

I always find it hard to get question on music get to the point, so i'll try it with this: Can anyone achieve semi-professional level of singing, even if one doesn't have a "good" voice?

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    I think auto-tune is a part of the answer ;) – JoeBilly Dec 19 '13 at 23:19
  • Well as I said I don't want to get a professional :-) – Michael Kunst Dec 19 '13 at 23:20
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    This may be an apocryphal story, but Jimi Hendrix was reluctant to sing as he felt his voice was too awful until he heard Bob Dylan ;-) – dumbledad Dec 20 '13 at 9:58
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    There was some research into the voice of Paverotti. The conclusion was that why he had such a wonderful voice wasn't because he was physiologically different from me or you (unless either one of us has some kind of handicap I don't know of). – 11684 Jan 4 '14 at 14:53
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    @MichaelKunst: I think it is important for the quality of the site (and its credibility in the long run) to not let claims like these go unchallenged. – Meaningful Username Feb 23 '14 at 20:06

10 Answers 10

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If you can hear yourself being out of tune, chances are you can teach yourself to fix it... or work with a vocal coach who is experienced enough in communicating HOW to change your technique... I've worked miracles with students who thought they couldn't sing in the past, and the results are wonderful for both teacher and student. On the other hand, if you can't always hear whether you're on pitch or if you've had significant ear drum damage, you might actually have some tone matching issues.

I suggest seeking a vocal coach at least a few times a month to get you off to a good start. Much luck to you!

  • Yes, I hear it when I don't hit a note. So are you basically saying if that's the case, then with enough practice and guidance you will sooner or later reach an acceptable level of singing? – Michael Kunst Dec 20 '13 at 15:13
  • I've been a member of a semi-auditioned (if you can carry a tune, you can join) community concert choir for a number of years now, and of the dozens or hundreds of people I've seen come through our ranks, I can count exactly one person who wasn't capable of becoming at least an adequate singer in that environment, and this person was completely tonedeaf (in the proper, amusic sense of the word). I get this question all the time, and my answer is always that if you're not completely physiologically tonedeaf, you can learn to sing. – Greg Jackson Mar 10 '15 at 0:31
  • To lend some perspective, true amusic tonedeafness seems to be at least as uncommon as true absolute pitch, which is also much rarer than many people realize. – Greg Jackson Mar 10 '15 at 0:32
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The answer is almost everyone can learn to sing.

There is a small percentage of people who suffer from amusia, which encompasses "tone deafness" and the ability to distinguish between different pitches. For such people, learning to sing is exceedingly difficult, because they cannot hear that they are making a mistake, so they can't even really tell what note they should sing, unless they "know." For such people, about the only thing I could imagine working would be for them to learn via "muscle memory"—how certain pitches "feel." Again, though, this is at best a limited technique, since muscle memory takes a while to develop, and also might not work for distinguishing very close pitches (I suppose this depends on the individual in question).

Putting such individuals in a choir is also a very ineffective way of teaching them to sing, because of the amount of time that might be needed to correct their mistakes (which they can't hear). The most extreme example of this I have encountered was in a university choir I sang in a few years ago. An alto somehow managed to sing in an "audition octet" with some of the biggest voices in the choir—thereby masking the fact that she wasn't actually able to sing on pitch. (She was singing very quietly, which apparently didn't help finding this problem.)

However, it was very obvious that there was something wrong—there would frequently be "wrong notes" sticking out in chords during warm-ups, and often during the main rehearsals. It was easy to hear from nearby, but got lost in the sounds of a 120-person choir singing loudly. If the repertoire had not included a performance of Mahler's Second Symphony (Auferstehung), with its cruelly exposed a cappella passages, it probably would have gone undiscovered. In that particular work, though, an alto randomly singing a minor third or so above the rest of the section stuck out rather painfully. The singer in question was quietly asked not to participate in the performance.

  • Yes. Any answer that doesn't cover tone deafness (like some of the ones below) in response to such a broad question is, at the very best, woefully incomplete. – mattliu Dec 5 '16 at 11:46
  • Might I add: some people don't have the physical capacity to even vocalise sound, through various means, and therefore cannot sing. – user45266 Oct 15 '18 at 3:41
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ABSOLUTELY! I'm very enthusiastic about this question, which I hope is conveyed by my use of exclamation marks. The reason being is because I can personally relate to this question.

I have always wanted to learn to sing since I learned to play guitar. I was very reluctant at first and very terrible. I was put down a lot by people telling me to stop singing or stop trying (including my loving mother), but alas I pressed on because I enjoyed it even if I was terrible.

I want to give you a few tips to learn to sing because I wish I had these tips when I was learning. I learned all on my own, and that's why I know anybody can.

  1. First things first, the best piece of advice I can give you is to buy a good computer mic like the Yeti Silver (that's what I use) and it's currently at a big discount right now from Amazon. Then get a good pair of over-ear headphones. Connect your mic to your computer, and connect your head phones to your mic. Put em on and start singing. This is good because now you can hear yourself instantly how other people hear you and it lets you adjust your voice right away instead of recording and waiting to play the record back until you can hear yourself. Trust me there is a huge difference--while we can hear our own voices well enough to get the basics, it is a world of difference to hear yourself with a microphone.

  2. Learn to accept that your voice has certain qualities that make it different from other voices. When I started I always tried singing with a sort of whispery head voice because I didn't like how my natural voice sounded and thought it to be aweful. The truth is, all of your voices (every part of your vocal system) can sound great with training. This includes falsetto which will sound bad until you practice and smooth it out. Actually I recently posed a question asking if I could make my falsetto like Brian Mcknight and I found out for myself not too long after because I was practicing it a lot. Check it out here.

  3. Practice singing scales. It's good that you can play guitar because it gives you the advantage of having a musical ear over someone who doesn't play anything. Also it gives you something to guide your voice with. You know when you're tuning your strings to each other without a tuner--ie hit the sixth string on the fifth fret and make it so it sounds like the fifth string. Well you can hear when it's out of tune or not, so all you have to do is practice singing say a C scale. Sing it and when your voice is off fix it until it matches then go up and down. Practice the vocal dexterity of switching notes. I'll tab the C scale for you for convenience. At the bottom is the C scale tabbed for guitar.

  4. Use Youtube to find vocal practice lessons. This is good to give you new ways of practicing your vocals. There's a lot more to singing that just being in tune, and you'll find that out as you sing more. Of course this can get kind of boring, but it's good to explore.

  5. Pay attention to good singers. When you hear a good singer, pay attention to their vocals and what they are doing and how it sounds. The more I learned to sing, the more I could distinguish between different kinds of voices. (When I say voices, I'm referring to head, chest, and falsetto etc.) It's like when you can already play guitar and you hear a guitar song, you can pick out a lot more parts because you already speak the guitar langauge--bow chika wow wow. Did you just hear the wawaw pedal there? :)

  6. ENJOY IT! Screw what anybody tells you about singing. You are your own person and if you want to be good at something or learn something you need to practice. When you start learning you're not gonna be good, but you need to have the conviction to keep it up and put other people's thoughts and comments out of your mind. One day you're gonna be good and they will eat their words. I was put down a lot when I was learning, but I kept learning because I wanted so bad to be good and I enjoyed it. Also, it helps to have a quiet place where you can practice to slowly gain confidence before you're practicing around other people.

Hope this helps. Good luck and keep practicing.

C Major scale

4

If you were learning the violin and stated "I can hear a melody in my head, but even if I try to hit the first note, I will fail very often.", wouldn't that seem silly? Of course you don't have some inborn ability to make an instrument produce a given pitch.

Singing is not talking (assuming that you are not from Switzerland). And speech melody is far less rigid than music pitches. And you would want to employ quite a larger range when singing (assuming that you are not from Switzerland).

Pitch control is a matter of practice. If you hear you are wrong, and preferably also hear which direction you are off, you can fix this with practice.

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    It's funny that you say that because it says he is from Switzerland. – Klik Jan 2 '14 at 18:42
  • I am, but I still don't get the Switzerland reference - can you enlighten me? :-) – Michael Kunst Jan 3 '14 at 11:59
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    The speech melody of Schwyzerdütsch easily encompasses one octave just for word stress. That feels like more than double what Leonard Cohen employs for actual singing. – User8773 Jan 3 '14 at 19:08
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The simple answer is yes.

There are a few reasons why this is the case and the first is simply "good" is objective. There are many famous singers that people like and I don't like their voice and there are some singers I like and people don't like their voice. The vocal quality that people like is different from person to person.

Besides that, there are many styles of music that do not care about the quality of a voice. The best example of this is seen in many cultures around the world where singing is a part of daily life. The prologue of This is Your Brain on Music discuss how the author told a tribe he "Can't sing" and they were confused because he can talk so he must be able to sing. I can even remember back in school not everyone in choir could sing the best, but as a group and with a little help from our choir teacher we could all sing together.

If you want to sing, you can sing. The bigger part of being a singer is not vocal quality it is determination and being committed to singing. You may not be the next big hit, but you will be doing what you like.

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I agree with the other answers in that most people can learn to sing. Particularly in your case from the experience that you mention, I would guess that you should be able to learn to sing. However, I would suggest an even more basic approach than the other answers. I feel like what you need is confidence and control. I think confidence comes first because that affects so much of everything that we try to do. There are a lot of technical aspects to singing that become instantly better when you approach it with confidence. Confidence doesn't necessarily mean volume, either. Just believing in yourself makes your singing better. Next maybe experiment with singing your vocal range. Start at the lowest note you can sing and then gradually go up and down. It seems a bit silly when you do it, but again that's where confidence needs to step in. Then maybe practice going up and down around one note as slow as you can and then gradually changing the pace of of the up and down around one note. Along with these exercises, try doing some deep breathing exercises and consistent breath control exercises like blowing and at a steady rate for as long as you can. Not too fast or slow. Once you feel more comfortable in your voice move on to scales and solfege and songs.

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Singing has a lot to do with vocal familiarity.

For example when we grow up we are always taught about what different colours are and we can identify them when we see them today. But with music unless you have been conditioned or used to listening and singing to music it's hard for your vocal cords to adjust to make the required note/sound. So technically anyone can learn to sing, but it's easier to condition your vocal cords to hit the note you're imagining when you're small.

A good exercise is to first identify a few notes that match what you're imagining. Generally these notes are midranged, once you can manage these, then move up or down scales to exercise your vocal cords.

Good Luck!

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You need a certain aptitude. But if you can sing at all, it can be improved. Hitting the right first note straight off is far from a trivial skill. If you can do it SOMETIMES, practice until you can do it every time.

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I always assumed that anyone could learn to sing. I was persuaded that this might not be true by reading articles by San Francisco Chronicle columnist Jon Carroll (now retired), who had terrible problems trying to learn to sing. I assume he wasn't just trying to be self-deprecating and funny by making this up, but actually experienced these embarrassing (for him) difficulties. In his case, it seems he had a lot of difficulty distinguishing pitches, so he could have had amusia. (He also had a photographic memory for trails in the wilderness. Go figure.)

On your guitar playing, do you tune the guitar yourself by ear or by tuner? On the other instruments you play, do you have intonation issues? It seems from what you wrote, you can distinguish pitches better than someone who has amusia. If so, then a lot of the difficulty could come from just trying to use your body/throat in inefficient ways, and a good vocal coach should be able to get you to be able to get you past that.

Also remember, not everyone who is a successful singer has a nice voice. there are some pretty raspy vocalists out there, that sing in a very moving way.

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Anyone can, in theory, develop proper technique. But not a lot of people can become sought after performers because singing has a lot to do with personality and psychology.

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