“Writing about music,” Martin Mull quipped, “is like dancing about architecture.” Part of the problem, of course, is that the reader wants to hear what the writer is going on about. And, inevitably, I refer to many, many songs in Bad Singer: The Surprising Science of Tone Deafness and How We Hear Music. So here’s your chance to hear nine of them.
A massive hit the summer I turned 10, this wasn’t the first song I loved—that honour probably goes to Peter, Paul and Mary’s “Puff the Magic Dragon”—but it was the first masterpiece I loved.
I’d rather not pick just one favourite artist, but if I had to, I’d pick this guy. From My Aim is True, his brilliant debut album, this song still stabs me in the heart.
I went through a lot of songs during my singing lessons with vocal coach Micah Barnes. Some we gave up on quickly; others, we worked at for a while and then dropped. I practiced this Cash classic for a long time and I managed to get it to the point that Barnes said I could probably get away with doing it at karaoke.
I spent three months in Dawson City, Yukon, while working on Bad Singer. I had a radio show on the community station there and each week, I picked a theme and created a playlist. This song was the only one that made two of my shows: the one about letters and the one about love songs that my wife co-hosted when she visited me. I’d been listening to that song for decades, but I never knew how lovely the lyrics were until I Googled them to check if the song really was about a letter.
The Rolling Stones
Some songs develop special meaning for us because they evoke a certain time and place. During my last year at McGill University, this was our “psyche tune,” the song my roommate and I played just before we left our apartment for a night out. To this day, it still pumps me up.
Isobel Campbell and Mark Lanegan
That kind of special meaning was what ethnomusicologist Gillian Turnbull was looking for when she asked me to give her a list of my fifty favourite songs. She wanted to analyze my choices to get a better sense of what I respond to in music. When I helped make a radio doc for CBC Radio’s Ideas (http://www.cbc.ca/radio/ideas/the-ballad-of-tin-ears-1.2913907), I asked Turnbull to bring three songs from my list to the studio. She brought four: “Allison”, “Aimee Mann’s “I’ve Had It”, Lou Reed’s “Satellite of Love” and this one. I’m glad she did. She pointed out that I have a weakness for duets, especially when the two singers have different timbres that work well together. “There’s almost nothing to her voice; it’s like something that appears for a second and flits away,” Turnbull said. “And his voice is very deep and so we end up with this whispery quality as a result. They’re quite far apart in range but something about that combination makes it a warm timbre overall.”
Turnbull noticed that several of my top fifty songs were by musicians about whom many people would say, “Can’t sing.” That includes legends such as Bob Dylan, Neil Young and Patti Smith. Turnbull considered only two artists on my list—Marvin Gaye and Neko Case—virtuosic singers. This song is from Case’s second album, which is still my favourite because it was the first one I heard. (There’s that emotional attachment at play again.)
Seeking a better understanding of the role timbre plays in how we hear music, I visited Stephen McAdams at McGill. “It’s a slow melodic line that climbs up with a swell in dynamics and then it comes back down again with a diminuendo. He starts in with the violins but it’s thickened by some bassoons and cellos and violas.” McAdams was describing the beginning of Wagner’s opera to make a point about the role of timbre in the waxing and waning of tension in Western music. “As it starts to swell, he’s adding in clarinets, English horn, and, at the peak, he adds in the oboes so he’s making it all very much brighter. Then as it goes down, all these instruments fall out.” Because he has the instruments play the same pitches, Wagner creates a powerful effect by changing the timbre. “So he’s enhanced the pitch contour with a timbral contour. Actually, I am getting goosebumps just thinking about it” — he paused briefly to laugh deeply (at himself, I assumed) — “because he does it so beautifully.”
This is one of two songs I sang at the house concert that ends the book. The late Clash frontman was another example of how you don’t have to be a virtuosic singer to be a great artist. I couldn’t sing this song anywhere near as well as Strummer could, but I did get a laugh with a tweak to the lyrics: “Oh, I do a lot of things I know is wrong / Hope I’m forgiven before I’m gone” became “I sing a lot of notes I know is wrong/ Hope I’m forgiven before I’m gone.”
Author and journalist Tim Falconer — a self-confessed “bad singer” — is one of only 2.5 percent of the population that has been afflicted with amusia, ie: he is scientifically tone-deaf.
Bad Singer chronicles his quest to understand the brain science behind tone-deafness and to search for ways to retrain the adult brain. He is tested by numerous scientists who are as fascinated with him as he is with them. He also investigates why we love music and deconstructs what we are really hearing when we listen to it. Throughout this journey of scientific and psychological discovery, he puts theory to practice by taking voice and breathing lessons with a voice coach in order to achieve his personal goal: a public display of his singing abilities.
A work of scientific discovery, musicology, and personal odyssey, Bad Singer is a fascinating, insightful, and highly entertaining account from an award-winning journalist and author.