Many believe that the majority of people are unable to carry a tune. Yet, this widespread idea underestimates the singing abilities of the layman. Most occasional singers can sing in tune and in time, provided that they perform at a slow tempo. Here we characterize proficient singing in the general population and identify its neuronal underpinnings by reviewing behavioral and neuroimaging studies. In addition, poor singing resulting from a brain injury or neurogenetic disorder (i.e., tone deafness or congenital amusia) is examined. Different lines of evidence converge in indicating that poor singing is not a monolithic deficit. A variety of poor-singing "phenotypes" are described, with or without concurrent perceptual deficits. In addition, particular attention is paid to the dissociations between specific abilities in poor singers (e.g., production of absolute vs. relative pitch, pitch vs. time accuracy). Such diversity of impairments in poor singers can be traced to different faulty mechanisms within the vocal sensorimotor loop, such as pitch perception and sensorimotor integration.
Keywords: congenital amusia; musical disorders; neurosciences of music; singing proficiency; song system; tone deafness.