Just as you can learn to play an instrument, you can learn to sing even if you believe you're completely tone deaf, a new study out of Northwestern University finds. Researchers had people from three different age groups sing (kindergarten, sixth grade, and college-age); subjects listened to what they were supposed to sing, then sang and were tested for their singing accuracy. Researchers found that accuracy improved between kindergarten and sixth grade, a time period during which most kids get regular music instruction, according to a press release. The college-aged group, however, had slid back—presumably because they had stopped practicing singing—and performed at the same level as the kindergarteners on two of the three tasks they were given.
"Our study suggests that adults who may have performed better as children lost the ability when they stopped singing," the lead researcher says; the press release notes that just 34% of US students are still participating in music instruction by eighth grade, and that number goes down further as high school graduation approaches. The researchers acknowledge that some people likely have an easier time staying on key, but the lead researcher notes that the skill "can be taught and developed, and much of it has to do with using the voice regularly." Just a "tiny subset of the population" is actually tone deaf, the press release notes. "No one expects a beginner on violin to sound good right away, it takes practice," the lead researcher says, but "when people are unsuccessful [at singing] they take it very personally, but we think if you sing more, you'll get better." (Either that, or take a pill that could give you perfect pitch.)