Academic journal article Attention, Perception and Psychophysics

Singing Ability Is Rooted in Vocal-Motor Control of Pitch

Academic journal article Attention, Perception and Psychophysics

Singing Ability Is Rooted in Vocal-Motor Control of Pitch

Article excerpt

Published online: 25 My 2014

(C) The Psychonomic Society, Inc. 2014

Abstract The inability to vocally match a pitch can be caused by poor pitch perception or by poor vocal-motor control. Although previous studies have tried to examine the relationship between pitch perception and vocal production, they have failed to control for the timbre of the target to be matched. In the present study, we compare pitch-matching accuracy with an unfamiliar instrument (the slider) and with the voice, designed such that the slider plays back recordings of the participant's own voice. We also measured pitch accuracy in singing a familiar melody ("Happy Birthday") to assess the relationship between single-pitch-matching tasks and melodic singing. Our results showed that participants (all nonmusicians) were significantly better at matching recordings of their own voices with the slider than with their voice, indicating that vocal-motor control is an important limiting factor on singing ability. We also found significant correlations between the ability to sing a melody in tune and vocal pitch matching, but not pitch matching on the slider. Better melodic singers also tended to have higher quality voices (as measured by acoustic variables). These results provide important evidence about the role of vocal-motor control in poor singing ability and demonstrate that single-pitch-matching tasks can be useful in measuring general singing abilities.

Keywords Perception · Production · Singing · Pitch matching · Timbre


Music is an important and universal aspect of culture, and one of the most prevalent forms of musical activity is singing. Nevertheless, many people do not sing well, despite having no problems hearing or understanding music. Poor singing ability can have several manifestations, including problems with timing and with timbre (the quality of a sound, independent of pitch, loudness, or timing). However, the most common manifestation of poor singing ability is poor pitch control (e.g., Dalla Bella, Giguère, & Peretz, 2007). In addition, music educators rank pitch intonation as the single most important factor in determining someone's singing talent (Watts, Bames- Burroughs, Andrianpoulos, & Carr, 2003). Because of this, many studies of singing ability have focused on the ability to match one or more pitches (e.g., Estis, Coblentz, & Moore, 2009; Hutchins & Peretz, 2012; Pfordresher & Brown, 2007; Watts, Moore, & McCaghren, 2005). This ability is common- ly measured acoustically as the distance in pitch between the sung note and the target note (the error).

In order to vocally match a target note, singers must perceive the pitch, determine the configuration of their vocal apparatus that will create a note of the same pitch, and enact that motor command. An error in any of these steps will lead to inaccurate vocal pitch matching (Berkowska & Dalla Bella, 2009; Pfordresher & Brown, 2007). Many studies searching for the cause of poor singing abilities have focused on perceptual abilities, generally by correlating vocal pitch-matching accuracy with a measure of pitch perception. Although some of these studies have found relationships between these two abilities (e.g., Estis et al., 2009; Estis, Dean-Claytor, Moore, & Rowell, 2011; Moore, Keaton, & Watts, 2007; Watts et al., 2005), several others have failed to do so (e.g., Bradshaw & McHenry, 2005; Dalla Bella et ah, 2007; Moore, Estis, Gordon-Hickey, & Watts, 2008; Pfordresher & Brown, 2007). Ultimately, however, it is unlikely that problems with pitch perception can accoimt for the majority of instances of poor pitch-matching abilities, given that errors in vocal pitch matching (when they occur) are often much larger than errors in measured pitch perception ability.

A recent study by Hutchins and Peretz (2012) used a novel method to investigate the relationship between the ability to perceive and vocally imitate pitches. …

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