Journalist Tim Falconer loves music. He glories in concerts and plays albums on repeat until the neighbors complain. Unfortunately, like most of us, he’s pretty sure he’s a bad singer. Falconer decides to do something about that by signing up for singing lessons, and then learns the truth: he’s not just a bad singer, he’s diagnosed as tone deaf.
As Falconer explains in the book, “tone deafness” is not really a thing, but there’s a real diagnosis behind it: “amusia”. Only about 2% of folks are amusic, with some people struggling with hearing small shifts in pitch to “beat deafness” to those who primarily struggle with re-creating the sounds they hear. Amusics typically find that their condition leaves them ambivalent to music. Falconer himself is particularly unusual in that, unlike most amusics, he adores music.
I found this book enormously interesting, if a bit long. Falconer balances his ongoing struggle with music lessons both before and after his diagnosis with discussions of the science of tone deafness. He is quick to laugh at himself in his personal narrative, and does a great job of keeping science at the popular writing level.
This book is an ode to singing. It’s a call to arms (throats?). There’s a wonderful chapter in the beginning that points out that people have become quite reluctant to sing. Young children sing loudly with very little prompting and ample gusto. But somewhere between 8-10, most people are told they “can’t sing”, and give up singing in public. (Witness this particularly awful example.)
We now are steeped in the voices of well-trained singers (and those who get a bit of a technical boost) almost from birth. The radio, television, and now the internet mean that we see the end result of experts but not the early stages when they were learning. The result is that we’re no longer willing to listen to unpolished, untrained voices. Singers who might have once been “the best in the church choir” are no longer being compared against the congregation, they’re being weighed against Ariana Grande and other radio stars, and found wanting.
The magic of making music has been pulled into the realm of the professional and people are no longer willing to do it badly, a lesson I am taking to heart these days since I am learning a musical instrument for the first time.
Fun fact: pop culture’s most famous “bad singer” William Hung was actually singing “She Bangs” on pitch on the first try on American Idol, a phenomenal feat. But, as Falconer explains, pitch isn’t the only thing that made his performance the butt of countless jokes.
Bad Singer is an engaging, and quick read. If it doesn’t convince you to sign up for singing lessons, it might inspire a karaoke outing with friends.