The lifelong implications of telling children they can’t sing

Were you told as a child that you shouldn’t or couldn’t sing? What about being told you were tone deaf? As an adult do you sing now?

Telling a child they can’t sing has life-long implications. But there are ways to reverse it.

Singing is a natural human interaction that transcends cultures, socio-economic groups, ability, gender and education level, but many people are so scarred from their childhood experiences of singing that they won’t sing as adults.

Northwestern University choral music expert Steven Demorest says this comes from a focus on talent rather than skill. “It creates a huge stigma for kids and becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy,” he says.

“If you believe singing is about talent and someone tells you that you don’t have it, then there’s nothing you can do. If it’s [considered] a skill, you can work harder and get better.

“When people hear ‘anyone can sing they interpret that as ‘anyone can be a famous singer’… but that’s not the same thing. Anyone can and should sing. You will get better with practice.”

Music teachers and parents are some of the culprits when it comes to telling children they can’t sing. Some schools require students as young as seven to audition for school choirs, which turns singing into a competitive pursuit instead of a fun, social activity. Those who are not successful feel a sense of rejection.

With parents, their discouragement of singing comes from a place of protection where they don’t want their child to be ridiculed. But Steven says, all young children naturally respond to music and we should be encouraging musical and vocal exploration.

“As a species human beings… are the only species that engage in musical sound play,” he says. “If you’re human you are musical. We see it all the time in babies. They start singing. They tend to sing by themselves. It depends on your definition of singing, but they are making vocalisations. I think it’s such a human behaviour.

“Take a toddler, put music on and watch what happens. We all have this inborn capability to respond to sound.”

So many of us were told as children, and possibly even as adults, that we are tone deaf. More often than not, that statement is untrue. Steven says people misuse the term 'tone deaf'.

Studies have found adults who self-identify as tone deaf can hear music totally normally. But what they struggle with, is reproducing the music accurately with their voice, “So when you say that someone’s tone deaf, you’re saying they have trouble singing,” he says.

Only a 'tiny' percentage of the general population has clinical tone deafness, also called congenital Amusia, according to Steven. People with Amusia cannot decipher different pitches.

Because only a very small number of us have this neurological disorder, it means there’s a good chance most of us are not tone deaf: “[Tone deafness] has nothing to do with our ears, and many of us would benefit from singing more,” Steven says.

There are various opportunities for both adults and children to sing. For adults Steven suggests karaoke – yes really.

He’s currently undertaking research with groups of people singing in bars. He says this is a great way for people to engage in group singing, where the stakes aren’t so high.

There’s also 'can’t sing' choirs which encourage those who think they can’t sing, to join.

For children, encouraging them to participate in non-competitive music lessons and choirs can be beneficial. Even if the child struggles with singing, their skills will develop and their singing will improve.

He says teachers need to be supportive and encouraging of their students.

But parents also play a vital role. Steven is currently doing research on parents singing in school with their children.

Parents feel less threatened when they are singing with their children and if they have sung songs at school, they are more likely to sing at home.

In the car is also a great place to sing. Steven recommends turning up the radio and singing along to what you know.

“Sing the Beatles, sing David Bowie,” he says, “Your kids will grow up loving David Bowie because they sang it with their parents. Whatever you love, sing it with your kids.”

And what if your kids complain that you have a terrible singing voice? “Tell them that’s ok, that everyone sings, and just keep going,” he says.