Ask A Scientist
When you like to sing how do you get such a good voice? Does is come from family members or genetics?
Asked by: Callie Rasch
School: Maine-Endwell Middle School
Teacher: Kevin Wagstaff
Hobbies/Interests: Dancing, singing, drawing, cooking and softball
Career Interest: Professional singer or dancer
Answer from Michael A. Little
Distinguished professor of anthropology, Binghamton University
Research area: Human adaptation to the environment
Ph.D. school: Pennsylvania State University
Family: Wife, Adrienne, and two grown children
Interests/hobbies: Swimming, choral singing, antique toys and books
Web page address: http://anthro.binghamton.edu/LittleM.html
This is a terrific question! But it is a hard one to answer in a short space. One of the reasons is that it is a very basic question that deals with the fundamental idea about whether some trait that we have is from nature (inherited) or nurture (our environment). Usually the correct answer is “both!” For example, each of my parents liked to sing and both had good voices (genetic?), but in addition to their singing, there was a lot of music in the household (environment?). Probably as a result of these conditions I have enjoyed singing most of my life.
Musicians and scientists have discussed this issue of "nature and nurture" for many years and have concluded that some individuals are born with a talent or gift for music. And if this talent is developed, then these gifted individuals may become fine musicians, either as singers or players of instruments or composers or teachers or all of these. Think of the skills that are necessary to be a professional and successful singer. First you must be able to listen and identify sounds (pitches) and then you must be able to accurately repeat them (to sing). But also you must have an excellent sense of rhythm, a good memory for the sounds, and you should probably have professional training in music reading and voice performance -- and you should love music. Rhythmic ability is an important skill that goes with singing and other musical activities, because music moves along often quite rapidly and you must be able to follow the rhythms and the music quickly and not fall behind. Therefore some of the best musicians in classical and popular music are very smart and can think quickly. Some people who have studied how others learn music, have suggested that learning to read music is like learning to read books. Some musicians can look at a whole line of sheet music and “read” and understand it in the same way that we would look at a sentence in a book and understand the “meaning” of it very quickly.
Returning to the basic question, then, there is very good evidence that a child with musical ability will show this at a very early age. On the other hand, there are some children who show no interest in music and this lack of interest carries over to when they are adults. But in both cases, a lack of music in the environment will limit the development of their musical skills. But in the case of a child with little musical interest, an environment with a rich musical experience will often transform the individual into someone who can enjoy music as an important part of his or her life.