Education: An eye for a good tune: Jane French reports on a computer program designed to teach 'tone deaf' children to sing

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The Independent Online
Singing is central to the development of musical skills and understanding, and is a key component of the music syllabus for pupils aged five to sixteen in England and Wales. Yet listen to any group of children, or adults, singing: typically, there will be several people either droning beneath the others, or else moving erratically from note to note; either way, they are conspicuously not singing the tune.

In the early years, this is something that does not seem to worry children. But towards the upper end of primary schooling out- of-tune singers become self- conscious. They are a significant minority.

Recent research by Graham Welch, of the Roehampton Institute in London, suggests that nearly a third of young people enter their teens unable to sing in tune (a figure which probably holds into adult life). And they are not helped by the widespread belief that people who cannot carry a tune are 'tone deaf', or that the ability to sing or otherwise is inborn.

David Howard, of the Department of Electronics at the University of York, is at the forefront of efforts to challenge established attitudes, and to help the children affected. With Vanessa Potter, a third-year engineering student, he has developed a computer program for primary school children. Singad (Singing Assessment and Development System) aims to bring the use of pitch, which we all control at a subconscious level in speech, under conscious control, so the singer can produce tuneful song.

Anna, my daughter, is eight. She recently became aware that she did not sing in tune, but enjoyed playing the piano and listening to music. Her nine-year- old friend David Maynard also finds it difficult to hold a tune and has come to dislike music: he left the school choir a few weeks ago.

The children were positioned in front of a computer screen, one controlling the programme by means of a 'mouse', the other clutching a microphone. In the first exercise, they took turns to make a series of fire-engine siren noises, of the classic two-tone variety, which produced a trace, or line, on the screen. The trace moved up or down as the child's voice pitch rose or fell. The next task was to make the same sound again, so that a second pitch trace would appear. Both children managed close approximations to their first traces, indicating some degree of awareness and control.

Two small houses then appeared on the screen, one higher than the other. David and Anna had to adjust the pitch of their voices so that their pitch traces would touch the houses. They were then encouraged to juggle the position of the houses, so as to alter the pitch of the 'target' notes, which, in musical terms, fell within the range of the A below and the A above middle C. Each child then tried a series of three houses. Anna found this difficult, but David was successful and had a try with four.

I have had some conventional musical training and found the visual feedback of the Singad system disconcerting. But this is perhaps how David and Anna, and others like them, feel when they are asked to tune their voices using auditory rather

than visual correspondence


They took the system in their stride and became immersed in the 'game', encouraging one another and losing the inhibitions they would feel in a more conventionally musical environment.

Singad has been tried out in primary schools in Bristol and London, with measured improvement in the vocal pitch accuracy of the majority of children during the course of a school year. It can also be used for advanced studies, including work on pitching in non-Western traditions.

The program was originally developed by David Howard and Graham Welch to be used on a BBC microcomputer with a special hardware interface and accompanying software. The Atari programme David and Anna tried uses a standard Midi (Musical Instrument Digital Interface) equipped synthesiser, and a pitch-to-Midi converter.

For further information, including costs, write to: David Howard, Electronics Department, University of York, Heslington, North Yorkshire Y01 5DD.