Thursday, March 25, 2010

Human voices wake us

Try asking someone near you about singing. I've done this from time to time. There are some people who have been trained to sing, for instance, in a choir, and they'll usually say so.

But most of the time, in my experience, people will tell you that their voices are terrible. Plagues of locusts terrible. Danger to public safety terrible. In a word, violent. In fact, I've been known to say the same about my own voice, which isn't great, but which certainly has never killed anyone. We don't say: I don't want to sing. We say: it would be dangerous for me to sing.

I wonder why this is so. Singing is a natural human thing to do, but we read it as threatening or monstrous. We believe one must be carefully trained and managed if one is to sing safely.

Maybe it's because the mockery of bad singers is the stuff of reality television. Or maybe it's because we've come to feel that our ears need protecting at all times--headphones that pipe in only the voices of professionals. Maybe singing, and communal listening too, threaten our radical individuality.

Maybe, too, it's something more fundamental about how we understand the singing voice: do we fear that we will sing poorly, and be mocked (merely)? Or that we will sing well, or well enough, and thereby open something?

I don't really know the answer; I only know that people with perfectly good voices habitually declare their voices monstrous. I'd be interested in other people's thoughts on this.

[Some human voices, in a living room.]

1 comment:

skg said...

Reactions to subpar singing--wherever "par" is placed--tend to be cutting and unforgiving, sometimes out of proportion to the badness of the singing. (I am guilty of overreacting, too, sometimes.) But there does seem to be more to it than the internalization of prior unwelcoming reactions.

I know one person who really, really cannot sing, but can play stringed instruments passably in tune. Encouraging that person to sing a little embarrassed everyone; the encouragement was, of course, in counterreaction to the usual social disclaimer....