Washington: Practice makes perfect! Singing accurately is not so much a talent as a learned skill that can decline over time if not used, scientists have found.
The ability to sing on key may have more in common with the kind of practice that goes into playing an instrument than people realise, said lead researcher Steven Demorest, a professor of music education at Northwestern University's Bienen School of Music.
"No one expects a beginner on violin to sound good right away, it takes practice, but everyone is supposed to be able to sing," Demorest said.
"When people are unsuccessful they take it very personally, but we think if you sing more, you'll get better," he said.
The study, published in the journal Music Perception, compared the singing accuracy of three groups: kindergarteners, sixth graders and college-aged adults.
One test asked the volunteers to listen to four repetitions of a single pitch and then sing back the sequence. Another asked them to sing back at intervals.
The three groups were scored using similar procedures for measuring singing accuracy.
The study showed considerable improvement in accuracy from kindergarten to late elementary school, when most children are receiving regular music instruction.
But in the adult group, the gains were reversed - to the point that college students performed at the level of the kindergarteners on two of the three tasks, suggesting the "use it or lose it" effect.
Singing on key is likely easier for some people than others, researchers said.
"But it's also a skill that can be taught and developed, and much of it has to do with using the voice regularly," Demorest said.
"Our study suggests that adults who may have performed better as children lost the ability when they stopped singing," he said.
Children who have been told they can't sing well are even less likely to engage with music in the future and often vividly remember the negative experience well into adulthood.
Being called "tone deaf" can have devastating effects on a child's self-image, researchers said.