How come I can't sing?

Is it just the shape of my vocal cords? People tell me I have a very smooth soothing voice but lordy I can’t carry a simple tune, even if it had a handle :slight_smile:

I talk fairly well but singing…

I had a coworker and it is just the opposite. His voice isn’t much he has a lisp but man I saw him in a club a few days ago and he blew me away. His voice is awsome. He’s gotta be able to cover a couple / three octives and well. I also notice no lisp when he sings.

A lot of singing is in the practice. I also couldn’t carry a tune with a shoulder strap, but I know people who can sing very well. Most of these people have practiced for years. They also have spent time with music teachers and voice instructors. I’m not saying that genetics and anatomical shapes don’t enter into it, but practice counts for most of it. At least that’s what all the good singers tell me when I ask them.

i’ve tried to be a very good singer for a very long time. I’ve taken vocal lessons, i’ve sung to every different type of music, and still i’m not great (especially in the upper-registers) but i think there are two things working for any would-be singer. one is natural talent. many, many, many people do not have this. This doesn’t mean that someone won’t be a great singer without natural talent. Look at Nick Cave. I think the biggest thing that will help an aspiring singer is experience. Listen and sing along to CDs all the time, and make sure you sing in the same octave as the singer does. This has helped me more than anything; from my experience, the only thing a vocal instructor will do is to try and find a song out of your range and try and strenghten your vocal cords so that you can eventually sing the song. It’s all about the vocal cord muscles, and if you know what you’re doing, you can have the same results a vocal coach will give you if you only try and sing along to music that’s not in your range all the time.

-HP Ellison

How is your hearing, and did you have a lot of ear infections as a child?
My son, bless his heart, couldn’t carry a tune in a bucket.
I attribute this to having many, long term ear infections as a young child. (He had tubes put in 4 times)During that time period, when he should have been developing the ear-vocal cord coordination, he couldn’t hear well enough. He can tell you when the note is wrong, he can memorize, slowly, a song in key, but just sing? No way.

Beware vocal advice over the internet. Be very afraid.

Having said that, though…

Like any other physical activity, singing requires muscular coordination. If you have a decent speaking voice, then you have all of the physical tools you need to sing. Singing and speaking are not quite the same thing (as you point out, many singers have unremarkable speaking voices, and vice versa), but if you can do one, you can most likely do the other at least passably.

Ask yourself a few questions:

  1. Can you clearly identify a tune when you hear one?
  2. Can you whistle a tune, or hum one?

If so, then you have no problems with pitch recognition.

  1. When you attempt to sing, are you trying to do something fundamentally different from what you do when you speak?

If so, try to think of singing as more energetic and sustained speech, and see what happens. This is a simplistic comparison, but it is a good experiment for yourself.

  1. Do you have a voice that is particularly low/high as compared to the average voice? If so, maybe you are trying to sing things that are not suited to the comfortable range of your instrument (i.e. things that are too high or too low for you). Most male pop singers, for instance, sing quite a bit higher than most of us would care to, and most female pop singers much lower.

  2. Finally, is your speaking voice energetic? Sometimes we get lazy in speaking and get used to sitting in the vocal basement all the time. If you feel this is the case with you, give some thought to speaking with a bit more energy, and a bit higher in your voice (though not uncomfortably so)–just enough to give it a bit more pitch variation. This might help shake out the cobwebs a bit. (It shouldn’t sound as if you are doing anything strange. Just imagine how you might address a group in a meeting, rather than how you would talk to a friend at the dinner table.)

This is bullshit, and you clearly have no idea what you are talking about, sorry to say :frowning:

I am not saying that you didn’t have the experience that you relate with a teacher or coach–there are lots of people who claim to be voice teachers who are in fact completely ignorant of how the voice works–but you should not assume that that experience is representative of what those of us who teach professionally do.

And (more importantly) trying to teach yourself to sing simply by screaming in the stratosphere to “stretch” yourself will only serve to make you tired and tense, and will not add appreciably to your vocal strength or skill–at least not in a way that is good for you. There is certainly something to be said for trying things out, and for making some sort of routine singing part of your life, but recommending what you say is like telling someone who wants to get in shape to go to the gym and “just start lifting tons of stuff that’s way heavier than you’ve ever lifted before”. The results are strained muscles and frustration–in some cases injury. Singing is an athletic activity, albeit on a micromuscular level, and it should be approached with the proper respect for the body’s limits and abilities.

Dragonlady’s post might hold some answers for you. Ear-voice coordination is a lot like hand-eye coordination. Nature gives some people more than others, but in most cases a person can learn to do either one at least decently. If you are near a piano some time, play a note in a comfortable range and see if you can match it with your voice. The answer will tell you a lot.

I have had students who started out not being able to match pitch, and ended up singing relatively difficult (at least in terms of the notes and rhythms) songs in short order. For some people it’s just a case of needing to awaken the necessary awareness in the voice. For some people, though, it’s a lot harder.

Best of luck :slight_smile:

ashcrott, for someone who’s looking to increase their talent enough to do passable backup vocals for a HS rock band, do you think a beginner level vocal music class from the college conservatory would be the correct way to begin?


I’ve been a singer as far back as I remember – did solos in church, etc. My dad’s passable, my Mom’s like you, she’s got a nice voice but no pitch. So I doubt genetics has anything to do with it.

I agree with the others, practice is the best way. When you sing with a record, can you hear when you’re off pitch? When you’re singing a song your familiar with, by yourself, can you sing it correctly or do you go off pitch? It may be that you just can’t hear the notes correctly (tone deafness) – but don’t worry. Johnny Cash can’t carry a tune in a bucket, Rex Harrison developed the “talk-sing” method for “My Fair Lady”, and there are other ways around it.

If all else fails, remember the words of a dear (and tone-deaf) friend of mine: “The Bible says “Make a Joyful Noise” – it doesn’t say anything about Good!”

Homer, Ask the prof. Usually they (or someone in the department) can tell you if a class is the right place for you. I’d go for something that gives you one-on-one attention, at least at first (is that part of the class?). Ask what the prereqs are, what they expect you to know before you walk in the door. One-on-one classes help find your strengths and weaknesses, and work on them individually.

I used to be painful to listen to, singing-wise, though I’ve always been told I have a nice speaking voice. Then I ended up trading someone dance lessons (from me) for voice lessons (because she couldn’t afford to pay for the dance lessons). My first lesson showed I had a seven-note range, none of which I could hit accurately or reliably. In six months, my range was 3-octaves-and-1-note, all of which I could hit reliably. I was singing arias. :slight_smile: I prefer blues, really. Out-of-practice, I still have about two octaves, comfortably.

I recommend training. I had practiced singing things that suited my voice for years, and all that did was reinforce my bad habits. I still have a hard time telling when I’m hanging slightly under a note instead of hitting it ‘true’, but when I practice, I get the feel back. And I’m seldom painful to listen to anymore - I hit a bad note now and then, but it isn’t all of them! I don’t have good pitch, but you can get a feel for pitch even with hearing problems (I have a minor hearing deficit, caused by my own stupidity - don’t mow lawns with your walkman turned up enough to drown out the lawnmower!). I can feel the vibration difference (harmonics) when I sing off-key, as long as something/someone else nearby is ON key.

It certainly couldn’t hurt to look into it. Some colleges even have teachers–in some cases whole programs–devoted to teaching more popular styles like jazz and musical theater–someone along those lines might be good for you.

Although I agree with Hedra that there is no substitute for one-on-one study with a voice teacher, I wonder if that’s really what you are looking for. The majority of teachers will teach from the classical perspective, and while that certainly wouldn’t do you any harm, I’m not sure it would do much for your rockin’ and or rollin’. Some schools offer voice “classes”, which are essentially group lessons. These tend to address the basics, like how to take a breath, the big dos and don’ts, etc. without getting into the finer points. Armed with some of that knowledge, you could then explore your own rock vocal style without (hopefully) doing yourself any harm. That’s assuming that what you want to do in this band is something other than screaming, in which case nobody can teach you to do it well :slight_smile:

But if you think your goals might be broader than specifically rock music, or if your interest in singing is relatively unexplored, then getting some lessons from a good teacher might be a great investment. Good teachers don’t come cheap usually, but their advice can be invaluable over time. At the very worst, you could take a few lessons and then decide that you aren’t interested in more.

One last thing. Since you are in high school (at least it sounds as if you are), then there is probably a school choir. Maybe joining up for a semester would give you enough regular practice in singing to get a sense of your abilities and needs. It might even put you on the right track to improvement. Best of luck.


p.s. My first post in this thread was a bit nasty towards HP Ellison. Sorry–my apartment was starting to flood at the time and I was none too happy!

similar question (and knowing that the internet is probably not the best place to look for this sort of advice) -
Why can’t I sing along with things?

When I sing along with music or records, it sounds awful. I’m hitting the right notes but it sounds weak and stringy and just generally horrid to listen to. Immediately after, I can sing the exact same thing in the same key a capella, and it’s fine - not amazing, but at least tolerable.

Any ideas?


My WAG is that when you’re singing along you’re listening to the music, so you’re not putting 100% into the singing part. When you sing it on your own, you’re not trying to do anything else and thus sing better.

I agree 100% with the link between hearing and singing. Someone who’s tone deaf won’t be able to sing well, because no matter how pretty the invidual notes they won’t be able to support the musical pattern. The lungs are another important singing tool. Anyone who wants to learn to sing should work on their breathing. A lot of people breathe with their shoulders (that is, they’re only using the upper parts of their lungs), but if you’d like to improve your range and carrying power then pratice breathing with your belly (to use full lung capacity). To practice, lie on your back and sing. You pretty much have to use your belly to breathe in that position, so it’s good practice.

Im deaf & sing just horrid . When the kid won’t get out of bed I used to sing to him & he would do anything to keep me from doing that so he would get out of bed. I should make a recording, I could make a mint.

In respsonese to Dragonlady, all my schildren were particularly free of ear infections as small kids, and yet, each of them is horribly tone deaf. My daughter managed top get into the school chorus in third grade, and it was…very sad. And, like another poster, my kids used to beg me NOT to sing…

To quote the words of my mentor, Jack Black, “The only thing that really matters is the classical sauce.”

The lead guitarist is a finger-picker with classical piano training. The vocals have a soft, emoted feel to them. Classical voice training would be perfect.

Sadly, conservatory classes are the best I can do, as a poor college student. What I wouldn’t give for a quality one-on-one voice, guitar, drums, and piano teacher.

To lead a gifted life… :slight_smile:


I have been curious about this, and now I finally have the opportunity to ask: Can a tone-deaf person be “taught” how to sing? To learn how to not be tone-deaf?

I have a friend who is pretty tone-deaf (or at least she sings tonelessly yet believes she sounds OK.) I never say much to her one way or another, but wonder if it would be appropriate to encourage her to pursue singing/music. (She sometimes indicates like she’d like to get into it.)

Does that person have a neurological problem? If the tone-deafness is mechanical (nerves, ear structure, brain development), then probably no. But if the person can ask a question that sounds like a question (rising tone), or can sound disappointed (dropping tone), they are not completely tone deaf. You use music-patterns every day when speaking, you just need to learn how to use them in singing.

Most people would have called me tone-deaf before I took lessons. I couldn’t tell what I was doing wrong, and I sounded okay to me most of the time (excepting the squeaks), but made everyone else wince (that, I noticed…). Currently, I don’t think anyone would call me tone-deaf, even with a hearing loss. I don’t know that everyone can learn it well enough to sound great, or that everyone would even WANT to. But training would be the only way to find out. Someone who also works with kids or does a lot of ‘brand new’ students would be great.

As I mentioned, I can feel the harmonics when I sing off-key against something that is on-key. But don’t ask me to tell you if your piano is out-of-tune! A generically ‘tone-deaf’ (not neurologically tone deaf) person might never be able to set the pitch, or sing a-capella, and they might need to learn tricks to help move from one note to the next, but they should be able to keep relatively in-tune otherwise. It just might not be worth the effort. I remember something about pitch-work with the hearing impaired kids in my grade school, some of whom were profoundly deaf. If they can feel it, why not someone whose ears work fine?

Oh, and we always asked my mom not to sing, too - but I’m betting that with lessons, she’d be just fine.

True tone deafness is extremely rare, and neurological in nature. Most people who experience themselves or someone else to be “tone deaf” are actually witnessing what is more appropriately called “amusia” (a term that I find “amusing” ;)).

People often confuse the terms because it is a common perception (and an understandable one) that a person’s ability to sing well (or on key) is a direct reflection of their “ear”, or their ability to hear and perceive music correctly. In fact it is more often a result of poor vocal coordination, poor vocal health, or some sort of self-perceptive disorder. I am a professional singer, and I myself have gone through periods when I have had difficulty singing well in tune because of vocal changes (my voice maturing), technical changes, etc.

Mind you, I’m no doctor and not an expert on this subject.

Yosemitebabe, I would suggest that your friend try a couple of simple excercises to evaluate him/herself.

  1. can he/she recognize the direction of a change in pitch (up or down?)

  2. can he distinguish between several familiar tunes played in a random order?

  3. can he whistle or hum a familiar tune successfully?

If not, he might want to consult someone who could evaluate the funcion of his hearing.

If so, then I would put money down that he could learn to at least carry a tune.

Not all people can sing well–no more so than all people can golf well, run well, or see well. But, almost everyone can carry a tune if they learn how, assuming that they are healthy and not suffering from a hearing deficit of some kind, or from vocal health problems.

If I had read carefully, I would not have needed all of the “he/she” nonsense in my last post :slight_smile:

Thanks so much, everyone, for this information!

My friend is a “sensitive” sort of person. I am not even sure she knows how bad she sounds. (Or perhaps she won’t admit she knows.) I come from a “musical” family (my mom is a great singer, we all play the piano) and my friend’s family is decidedly not musical (in the traditional sense, anyway.) So in the past, her family has looked towards me for some insight on this one girl. And I was hesitant to offer any encouragement.

I do not know if I ever dare broach the subject of her tone-deafness, since I think she would be offended, and refuse to believe she has any problem. (Though I could be wrong about that.) I can tell you, she CANNOT whistle or hum a familiar tune successfully. I am not sure she always recognize a change in pitch. Other than that, I do not know.