Singing is like juggling. There are many elements that come into play and it takes time to build each of them. Many children are lucky enough to have lots of interaction with music and starting to sing when you are younger helps. When we sing as children it is more playful and fun which allows the musical concepts and skills to be developed in a gentle, and generally easier way.
As adults we may not acknowledge how play and fun can increase the speed of learning and the retention of new information. We often tend to criticise ourselves when we don’t succeed in gaining skills quickly. When I’m working with adults who don’t have good pitch and that can’t hold a tune, it is essential to make the process of learning fun, if it isn’t fun they would find it hard to keep practicing until the skills become automatic. So, just repeating silly noises together may be the most important part of my lessons!
Research shows that children develop music skills in a certain order. Interestingly, very young children tend to respond mainly to larger intervals between notes, for example a low note followed by a high note. They find it much more difficult to hear the smallest gap between notes called a semi-tone. Beginner adults will also need to take the time to listen carefully to music to develop their “ear” so that they can accurately discern the gaps beween the notes.
A baby will naturally interact with music if they are giving a rattle or spoon to hold in their hand. They will start to move with the music which develops rhythm skills. So, if you are just starting to develop your music skills and learn singing, grab a wooden spoon and shake it as you listen to your favourite songs. It’s fun!
Another interesting aspect of the psychology of music is the interaction between the left and right sides of the brain. Research shows that musicians use both the left and right side of the brain when they are problem solving much more than non-musicians. The left side of the brain is strongly connected to speech, it is like a task master, it likes to control things and bring order to situations. It’s also the critical side of the mind that could be hard on you if you don’t pick up new concepts quickly enough. For singers, the logical or left brain deals with the musical structure of songs and physical skills of singing.
The right side of the brain has been traditionally seen as the creative side. It’s the playful side, the side that emotions can be expressed with. The creative or right brain deals with the melody of a song and also how we expess the emotions and meaning in the song. The rhythm or beat in the music uniquely activates both sides of the brain and is a great starting point when you’re learning new songs.
To integrate both sides of the brain, I recommend listening to the rhythm in songs before trying to learn the words or melody. The next step would be to hum along with the song, this keeps the practice playful and stops the left brain from kicking in too soon. Then think about the meaning of the lyrics – what are they about? What do they mean to you? If a song has meaning for you then you can learn to express and perform it in a way that will reach the audience. Don’t forget to do regular warm ups and ear training exercises too. These relate to the left brain and can feel more tedious but they are very, very helpful for improving your tone and vocal agility.
Even if you have been told you can’t sing I believe it is possible to learn it later in life. For a new singer it can be useful to understand some of the psychological aspects that could affect you so that you won’t feel as discouraged and you’ll know that everyone else is in the same boat. Bear in mind that musical skills can only be gained and integrated together over a period of time. It is better not to rush the process in case you miss some of the essential steps along the way. Knowing a little about music development in children and the role of left and right brain in singing has certainly helped me develop a way to teach singing to adults that is fun yet helps their skills and confidence develop bit by bit.
Aideen Ní Riada is a singer and vocal coach based in Ireland. Aideen is the founder of Confidence in Singing and she facilitates classes and workshops for adults and teenagers who want to sing for fun and grow their confidence. Confidence in Singing was founded based on Aideen’s passion for giving students the confidence to find their voice, face their fears and just have fun with singing. She studied Psychology at University College Dublin which has helped her to develop a teaching style that brings out the best in her “secret singers” and helps students become confident performers and overcome self-limiting beliefs.
Since launching Confidence in Singing in 2016, Aideen has been featured on RTE’s Nationwide, Beat 102 103, and South East Radio, with mentions for her work in Ireland’s Own and the health supplement of the Irish Independent. Aideen also produces her own original music and is currently working on new material.