Wednesday, 12 September 2012

Can't you hear yourself? (The X Factor)

I was watching The X Factor last night and thinking briefly about some of the issues behind what must surely be the most popular music programme on TV at the moment. I'm sure that most people don't give such things a second thought, but I find the questions that pop music and TV raise in relation to music fascinating.

Although I find programmes like The X Factor to be at the very least frustrating, and often completely exasperating to watch, it's clear that a lot of people love it, and there still doesn't seem to be any shortage of applicants. Of course, the auditions themselves vary hugely in quality - in fact, a lot of people enjoy watching the terrible auditions more than the final rounds - and for me that raises very interesting questions about self-awareness and hearing in relation to music. Why is it that some people think they are singing in tune and with good tone but sound awful, while others are very good but don't really seem to realise it, seeming shocked when people like what they hear? It often seems as though people simply cannot hear themselves when they sing.

I think there is a common issue lying behind many of these auditions, which is not lack of pitch recognition or musicality (although they are clearly problems for a significant number of applicants!), but lack of musical or auditory self-awareness, by which I mean the ability to proactively and critically listen to themselves, and the sound they make in relation to others. I suspect this stems from two main factors (although I must proceed with the caveat that I don't really know anything about the musical backgrounds of the contestants for definite).

Firstly, the majority of the contestants seem not to have had any genuine, sustained musical or vocal tuition, in a group or individual context. I'm also not sure that many of them have ever spent very much time singing with other people. When I look back on my musical training so far, self-awareness appears as a constant theme, although it didn't necessarily seem so at the time, especially when I was younger. This is because whether it is developed consciously or not, self-awareness or proactive listening is important for someone to become a skilled musical performer. Without being able to judge how you sound and compare it to what you want others to hear it is much harder for a performer to either improve their skills or perform music to a high standard. It is this proactive listening that you learn when comparing your performance to that of a teacher in a lesson, or when trying to match intonation and tone quality with the other members of a choir. If contestants on The X Factor have not had musical training or spent time developing their listening skills then they will often not have learned to really think critically about what they hear when singing. Therefore they will not be able to get an accurate sense of how they sound to other people, or improve very significantly, which goes a long way to explaining both why they are bad, and why they don't know how good or bad they are.

Secondly, the format of the auditions means that the vast majority of applicants sing along to a backing track. I suspect (although again I don't know for sure) that most of them therefore practice by singing along to the track in question, which means that they probably don't focus enough on how they actually sound. When working with recordings it is easy to get lost in passively following the track, and therefore assume you are putting across a particular performance rather than analysing what is actually happening. This can result in a rather nasty surprise when trying to perform in a different context.

These two factors do not provide a full picture, but I think they are intriguing starting points for an explanation of why people seem to completely misjudge the nature of their abilities and performances on talent shows. (Although I suppose I could just be over thinking the whole question - maybe they know they're bad and just want to get on TV?)

We hear lots about how music can help with fostering team work and cooperation, but there seems to be less about how it can help the individual. Surely the fact that music-making can improve self-awareness, an important skill in every area of life, is another argument in favour of increased musical participation in schools, and something that deserves to be considered in music education?

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