... claims a new study from researchers Steven Demorest and Peter Pfordresher, who have obviously never met me. The paper, published in a recent edition of the journal Music Perception, posits that rather than being unable to sing, most people are just out of practice.
For the study, a group of kindergartners, sixth graders, and college-aged adults performed three tasks that involved singing a series of notes. As they sang, the researchers tracked the percentage of errors they made. Understandably, the youngest group made the most errors, but what was surprising was that the sixth graders performed markedly better than the college-aged adults on two of the three tests. The researchers concluded that during elementary school, children are exposed to musical education and their singing improves. However, sometime between then and college, most fell out of practice, and thus lost their "ability."
They concluded that singing, then, is not so much an inherent talent as it is a skill you can train—and that most bad singers are people who just haven't practiced in a while. This fits with the findings of a 2007 study that showed that just one in 20 people truly suffer from amusia, the technical term for tone-deafness.
The researchers conclude that people who fall out of practice are dissuaded from pursuing singing and told they are "tone deaf." This doesn't account for those of us who have no shame about our much-maligned voices—but then again, I guess someone has to be the one-in-twenty.