The Science of singing off key


Some people assume we are either born with some kind of musicality or not. Have you ever heard people telling you, that they just can‘t sing? And to be honest – it‘s true. Some people have problems with intonation, which makes them sound aweful. Why is it that some people just don‘t seem to hit that note?

The question occurred when I was doing a clinical internship by a voice therapist. She was using a voice therapy method from „Lichtenstein Institut“ where people sing prolongated vowels accompanied by the piano. There are various objectives towards these exercises, but one is to increase the self awareness for producing sound. Some of her clients had enormous difficulties to hit the notes she was playing.

Listen to me hit the wrong note. No true feelings were hurt in this video. Thanks to my lovely theatre crew.

The answers are multilayered and not easily given, but the good thing is, there is a lot of research towards that topic. So let me break down the data for you.

Theoretical background

Singing is a natural skill that is deeply rooted in most cultures. Singing is a function as natural as speaking, is widespread and universal. Human culture is deeply connected with singing. The child’s first attempts at singing arise spontaneously by imitating the mother’s singing, already in the first month of life. Starting from these first examples of vocal abilities, singing develops over time through exposure, spontaneous practice and sometimes early musical supervision (e.g., see Ostwald, 1973; Welch, 2006 quoted after Bella 2014). This development process continues until the accuracy and precision characteristic of adult vocal performance is achieved.

Singing involves monitoring one’s own fundamental frequency (F0) in order to create and maintain an intended voice pitch. Certain pitch targets are created and maintained by adjusting the positioning of the laryngeal structures and by changing subglottal air pressure. Acoustic feedback plays a crucial role in this process (Scheerer&Jones, 2012).

The functional process of voice generation on the muscular and physical level is well evaluated and known. The neurological process from the desire to produce a sound or tone, to the realized vocal expression, is still a not fully researched process and subject of current studies (Zarate, 2013). The closed-loop control system of the voice function represents an overlap of neuropsychological, neurological, physiological-functional and medical knowledge.

I translated the model of Kruse (2012) just to show you, how many areas interact when it comes to phonatory adjustement. (Who would like to read a full explanation of the model can contact me, or buy the book). There are numerous interactions, and we have not yet included auditory control. In all these areas, errors can occur, which can lead to poor intonation.

Another helpful model is presented by Bella (2015). The “Vocal Sensomotor Loop” model is the basic model for her investigations into the causes of vocals with poor intonation (Berowska& Dalle Bella, 2009a, Dalla Bella, Berowska&Sowinski, 2011 quoted after Bella, 2015). Here, too, it is shown how different functional areas interlock to enable singing with correct intonation. In this model, motor planning, motor output, perception, and auditory-motor mapping are all in a functional loop that is continuously compared with long-term and short-term memory.

Hutchins&Peretz (2012) name three main areas where problems might occurre when it comes to poor intonation:

For example might a person who is unable to hit that note might suffer from memory difficulties, perception disorders, no motivation to practice, problems differentiating timbre and pitch.

In addition, there are many external factors that influence how well we are able to sing in correct pitches or tone sequences, as well as melodies. For example, our musical training, both instrumental and vocal, influences our ability to intonate correctly (Selleck&Sataloff, 2014).

Selleck&Sataloff (2014) also mention hearing loss (uncoordinated contraction and relaxation of internal and external laryngeal muscles) Difficulties of respiration (e.g. low lung volume, which affects the ability to hold the tone), articulation and vocal formation are factors that influence intonation accuracy.

Congenital amusia

Congenital amusia has a special role. Congenital amusia describes the inability to listen to music (Tan et al.,2014). Mandel,Schulze& Schlaug (2007) add that Congenital Amusia also represents the inability to sing at the correct pitch. Hutchins&Moreno (2013) describe congenital amusia as a condition in which the ability to perceive music is impaired without the presence of hearing impairment or neurological damage. The affected persons find it difficult to perceive pitch differences of less than a semitone. They are also unable to distinguish ascending and descending tone sequences. The perception of the timbre of a sound as well as the memory for tone sequences is also impaired.

Auditory feedback

I deliberately skip the influence of auditory feedback. This would be a brand new blog post and is very extensive. Let me know if you want to learn anything about it. Pathological hearing difficulties and difficulties in hearing processing (auditory system and feedback) are of course a main reason why problems with intonation might occure.


To summarize the reasons that might lead to problems to hit notes, there might be problems with:

• Perceptual skills (Perceptual reasons)

• Motor and sensorimotor control

• (Singers have trained the coordination of respiratory and laryngeal muscles. In addition, they can perceive and control their singing through kinesthetic perception. )

• Pathological hearing difficulties Difficulties in hearing processing (auditory system and feedback)

• congenital amusia

• Singing training (or a lack of singing training)

• Other causes

Treatment approaches

Are there therapeutic approaches that can improve the intonation abilities? I conclude my report with a few suggestions.

• Improvement of kinesthetic perception (sensorimotor perception): Singers can perceive and control their singing via kinesthetic perception. This can also be trained by amateur or amateur singers.

• General singing exercises (Motor Control and Planning): Bottalico, Graetzer&Hunter (2016) Describes that general singing skills that have a positive effect on intonation can of course also be trained

• Listening to music: Strengthening of percussive and musical abilities. Above all, listening to music and genres that one likes, can positively influence the ability to reproduce them (Mustaine et al., 2018).

• Posture and body tension: As described above, posture and body tension can influence the sound of the voice and also the intonation ability (Dimon, 2011).

• Articulation: Articulation can also have an influence on the seat fit, but also on intonation accuracy (Selleck&Sataloff, 2011).

• Vocal improvisation: Not only structured singing, but also free singing can benefit the singer; above all, it trains the interaction between musical perception and motor control of the vocal tract (Davido&Sernove, 2012).

• Improvement of the auditory perception: The general auditory perception has been evaluated in the literature as one of the decisive factors regarding intonation ability. For example, musical hearing can be trained.

If you made it this far, thank you so much for reading my blog. I tried to break down the most important information. But it was still a lot. Let me know about your experiences with clients or singing students. This is a topic where it is possible to dig deep into the areas of neuropsychology, audiology, perception, singing pedagogy and voice science. I bet there is so much more knowledge to discover.


Bella, S. D. (2015). Defining Poor-Pitch Singing. Music Perception: An Interdisciplinary Journal, 32(3), 272–282.

Bottalico, P., Graetzer, S., & Hunter, E. J. (2017). Effect of Training and Level of External Auditory Feedback on the Singing Voice: Pitch Inaccuracy. Journal of Voice, 31(1), 122.e9-122.e16.

Dimon, T., & Brown, G. D. (2011). Your Body, Your Voice: The Key to Natural Singing and Speaking. Berkeley, California: Random House Incorporated.

Hutchins, S. M., & Peretz, I. (2012). A frog in your throat or in your ear? Searching for the causes of poor singing. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 141(1), 76–97.

Paoliello, K. B. G., Pereira, L. D., & Behlau, M. (2019). Voice Quality and Auditory Processing in Subjects with and Without Musical Experience. Journal of Voice.

Selleck, M. A., & Sataloff, R. T. (2014). The Impact of the Auditory System on Phonation: A Review. Journal of Voice, 28(6), 688–693.

Sundberg, J., & Mecke, A. C. (2015). Die Wissenschaft von der Singstimme. Augsburg: Wissner-


Titze, I. (2015, Juli 8). Episode 20 – Ingo Titze Talks Basic Vocal Science | Belting | Vibrato. Abgerufen 11. Februar 2020, von

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Zarate, J. M. (2013). The neural control of singing. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, 7.