Can everyone sing?

A new project sets out to challenge the idea that ‘singing is just about confidence’ and asks how we can reach adult 'non-singers'

In the face of a growing public narrative that ‘everyone can sing’, there's still a section of the population who are convinced that they're ‘tone deaf’, and that group singing is not something they would be able to participate in.

Since April 2016, Dr Karen Wise has been running a research project at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama. The project, called ‘Finding a Voice’, is funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council and specifically looks at people who exclude themselves from group singing, believing that they can’t sing.

Finding a Voice has recruited and worked with 20 non-singers, offering weekly individual and group singing lessons from a team of expert tutors. Making Music has been part of the advisory group for this project, alongside representatives from LSO Discovery, the Barbican and the Sidney de Haan Centre.

Finding a Voice tracked 20 participants and collected data looking at four key areas; skill development, including vocal and musical skills; changes in attitudes and beliefs, including social judgement and elitist beliefs about singing; narratives from participants about the journey itself; and the process of teaching and learning, including specific strategies used by teachers.

As part of the project, Guildhall hosted a workshop for practitioners entitled ‘Enabling adult non-singers’, looking at interim trends and results of the project. The findings so far are heartening; a number of participants who were terrified of singing in front of others at the start of the project have recently performed in public concerts, and several have gone on to join choirs.

The project is keen to challenge the notion that ‘singing is just about confidence’, recognising that there is a key element of skill development that needs to be in place. Perhaps a more helpful message for existing choirs to be putting out to potential new members is not ‘everyone can sing’, but ‘everyone can learn to sing’.

In the final phase of the project, the researchers will be analysing the data and creating reports and recommendations, leading to a final conference in late 2018 or early 2019. Co-investigator on the project Professor Andrea Halpern from Bucknell University, USA, and Dr Wise are working with an app developer to create an app to train auditory imagery; ‘the ability to imagine sounds in the “mind’s ear”’.

To sign up as a volunteer or for more information visit the project website.

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As 'Mama Tuneless' I have been accosted in supermarkets with the 'everyone can sing' baloney and very much welcome the advance to 'everyone can learn to sing'. However I don't think it goes quite far enough...

The problem with the "sing" bit. It really means "sing in tune" doesn't it? We use "I can't sing" not to mean "I can't produce a rhythmic noise" but as a shorthand for "I can't sing in tune". I can sing, it just spoils it for everyone else if they are trying to sound half decent.

The problem with the "can learn" bit: That's assuming that people have the motivation, time and financial resources to dedicate to learning. The participants in this study must have been willing to spend considerable time taking part. They were lucky to be given weekly individual and group singing lessons from a team of expert tutors. My husband tells me when someone on the TV is off key - I can't even hear it. For me taking singing lessons would be a lengthy, costly and actually rather painful exercise, I just want to be able to sing. So "could" is better than "can", being conditional.

The problem with the "everyone" bit: There are some people who can't vocalise anything, and some with very restricted voices after thyroid surgery or strokes. Yes some may learn to sing, possibly better than they can speak, but others can't. So it's simply not "everyone". It might be fair to say "many people". Though we really don't know the numbers.

So I'm left with "Some people who think they can't sing in tune, could learn to if they were motivated to devote the time and money to do so." It doesn't make as good a name for music groups but I think it's more accurate!

Nadine Cooper

Hi Nadine, thanks for leaving a comment - you make some very interesting points. My understanding from the researchers is that there is a certain percentage of the population who self define as "someone who can't sing" and very strongly believe this. So in the face of all the evidence that exists of the benefits of singing, especially in choirs, this group of people is being excluded and simply doesn't believe that the term "everyone can sing" applies to them. So amending it to the term "everyone can learn to sing" is an attempt to reach out to these people, and frame singing as a skill that will improve with time (which it will) rather than an inate thing you are born able to do or not.


To go through your points in turn:

"to sing" - no I don't think this does just mean "to sing in tune". There are many choirs out there that don't expect members to have to sing in tune, and there are a lot of elements to singing other than just the being in tune part. And as with any skill, the more you do it, the better you will get at all of these things.


"can learn" - I think you make a valid point about could vs can. But also, singing lessons aren't the only way to learn how to sing. I run 2 choirs, and give singing lessons, and I often say to people that you can learn to sing in a choir just as much as you can in lessons. Lots of choirs start their rehearsals with a session on breathing and vocal development/technique, and there are choirs specifically aimed at less experienced or beginner singers that will include a lot of this. There are no rules on how quickly you have to learn either - someone with more time on their hands that goes to a weekly choir might learn more quickly than someone with less free time who can only attend once a month, but once again there are choirs who don't expect or insist on singers attending weekly.


"everyone" - again you make a fair point. However, once again there are choirs that set out to include people with restricted vocal capacity or hearing - signing choirs being a great example of this.


Yes, there's a point about motivation, and not everyone obviously will want to do this. But for the (many) people who think they can't sing and wish they could, there are opportunities to do so. A lot of it boils down to finding the right choir or teacher or group for you.