What is Talent in Singing?

What is Singing Talent?

Joseph Shore

I have been pilloried by some people on youtube for suggesting that there is a genetic component to talent in singing. Here is my reasoning. As a voice teacher I often observe that some people have talent and others don’t. There is no way of getting around that. But what is talent in singing? At the most basic empirical level of explanation “talent” seems to be a predisposition for mind/body coordination in a particular activity; in this case, singing. Some people, very clearly, have it and others don’t. But what is talent at a deeper level? Why can some people study singing for 10 years and not be able to sing very well and others are ready for the operatic stage? There is some factor other than study of which we must take account. Nor will it do to simply say that some people learn faster than others, because that again brings us back to the question of why that is. I don’t know of any major voice teacher, impresario or director who disbelieves in “talent,” as a real factor. It seems inescapably true that at this point we are unable to accurately explain what talent is at the mechanistic level, but it is there nonetheless. Can we agree with this? If so, then we need to investigate the mechanism wherein “talent” may lie. It is fairly certain that talent does not lie within the physical apparatus itself. Both good singers and bad singers appear to have similar larynges, similar strap muscles, similar rib cages, etc. In an earlier era there was great hope in finding the secret of singing within the physical larynx but it did not pan out. Autopsies of great singers’ larynges looked no appreciably different from non-singers.


If we cannot find the location of talent within the physical organs of singing, perhaps we can investigate the area of the brain that controls singing.  Richard Miller quotes Dr. Wyke, an expert on the neurology of singing:


            “The laryngeal neuromuscular adjustments that take place prior to the omission of sound depend for their precision upon the acquisition and storage of an appropriate vocal control programme in the synaptic circuits of several regions of the brain–chief of which, in the majority of singers, is the right temporal lobe. The inevitable implication of this proposition, therefore, is that again (as with respiratory muscle control) it is cerebral cortical systems that the singing teacher is training in his or her pupils with the objective of producing more and more rapid and precise automatic control of the complex neuromuscular process involved in prephonatory tuning of the laryngeal musculature, and their tighter and tighter coordination with the developing respiratory muscle control programme.” (Miller, The Structure of Singing, p.199)



We must look at “acquisition and storage of an appropriate vocal control programme” in “the right temporal lobe.”  “Acquisition” certainly implies that there is a function in the right temporal lobe that must be “turned on,” while “storage” implies that this center of the right temporal lobe can and must “learn.”  We have here then, a physical correlative to the dictum that singers must have both “talent” and “training.”  However, I was most severely pilloried by my theory that “talent” could be controlled by deep genetic memory. It is only a theory but it fits well with certain facts and other theories. It has long been known that the right brain is the evolutionary old brain. It does not process information in the manner of the left brain. It has long been argued that origin of speech in Homosapiens is secondary to “singing.”  The great linguist Von Humboldt proposed that Homosapiens developed speech only relatively recently in our evolutionary past. Speech was “invented” and made use of organs designed to be sound makers. Speech also seems to be controlled in the new left brain rather than the old right brain. Certainly early Hominids had larynges, strap muscles, diaphragms, rib cages, but they did not use them for speech. The evolutionary cause of such organs was the need to make imitative sounds in pre-speech communication. The cerebral control area for this function would have been in the old right brain, apparently in the right temporal lobe. As I said, this is not new to me. Many anthropologists and linguists have proposed these ideas. In their extensive article,    “The memetic origin of language: modern humans as musical primates,” Mario Vaneechoutte and John Skoyles argue the case very effectively:



“Song (musicality, singing capacity), we argue, underlies both the evolutionary origin of human language and its development during early childhood. Specifically, we propose that language acquisition depends upon a Music Acquiring Device (MAD) which has been doubled into a Language Acquiring Device (LAD) through memetic evolution. Thus, in opposition to the currently most prominent language origin hypotheses (Pinker, S. 1994. The Language Instinct, W. Morrow, N.Y.; Deacon, T.W. 1997. The Symbolic Species, W.W. Norton, N.Y.), we contend that language itself was not the underlying selective force which lead to better speaking individuals through natural selection. Instead we suggest that language emerged from the combination of (i) natural selection for increasingly better mental representation abilities during animal evolution (thinking, mental syntax) and (ii) natural selection during recent human evolution for the human ability to sing, and finally (iii) memetic selection that only recently (within the last 100,000 years) reused these priorly evolved abilities to create language. Thus, speech – the use of symbolic sounds linked grammatically – is suggested to be largely a cultural phenomenon, linked to the Upper Palaeolithic revolution. The ability to sing provided the physical apparatus and neural respirational control that is now used by speech. The ability to acquire song became the means by which children are able to link animal mental syntax with syntax of spoken language. Several studies strongly indicate that this is achieved by children through a melody-based recognition of intonation, pitch, and melody sequencing and phrasing. Language, we thus conjecture, owes its existence not to innate language learning competencies, but to innate music-associated ones, which – unlike the competencies hypothesized for language – can be straightforwardly explained to have evolved by natural selection.

The question on the origin of language then becomes the question on the origin of song in modern humans or early Homo sapiens. At present our ability to sing is unexplained. We hypothesize that song capacity evolved as a means to establish and maintain pair- and group-bonding. Indeed, several convergent examples exist (tropical song birds, whales and porpoises, wolves, gibbons) where song was naturally selected with regard to its capacities for reinforcing social bonds. Anthropologists find song has this function also amongst all human societies.

In conclusion, the ability to sing not only may explain how we came to speak, but may also be a partial answer to some of the very specific sexual and social characteristics so typical for our species and so essential in understanding our recent evolution.” (http://cfpm.org/jomemit/1998/vol2/vaneechoutte_m&skoyles_jr.html 




They continue:

The idea that the origin of speech lies in our ability to sing can be traced back to at least Jean Jacques Rousseau, in the seventeenth century [73]. It was suggested by the famous linguist Wilhelm von Humboldt in the nineteenth century [94] and by Otto Jespersen early in this one [41]. However, this approach to language has been ignored in more modern times. Indicative is that the word `music’ lacks in the index of the recent books of Pinker [67] and Deacon [21]. In recent times, music has received serious attention by some linguists [48], but this was done within the Chomskyan paradigm and did not address the origin of language.

Just like song birds possess highly sophisticated syringes, there are very characteristic morphological changes of the human glottis and larynx, unequalled in any mammalian species [75]. Aitchison [1] remarks: “Our language has more in common with the singing and calling of birds, than with the vocal signals of apes.

The resemblance to bird song was noticed already by Charles Darwin [19]:

“(Language) is certainly not a true instinct [Note  4], for every language has to be learnt. It differs, however, widely from all ordinary arts, for man has an instinctive tendency to speak, as we see in the babble of our young children; whilst no child has an instinctive tendency to brew, bake, or write. … The sounds uttered by birds offer in several respects the nearest analogy to language, for all the members of the same species utter the same instinctive cries expressive of their emotions; and all the kinds which sing, exert their power instinctively; but the actual song, and even the call-notes, are learnt from their parents or foster-parents. These sounds, …, are no more innate then language is in man.


“The exact reason for the origin of singing behaviour is beyond the scope of this paper, but it is clear that the ability to sing has been naturally selected on many separate occasions – e.g. birds, whales and gibbons. Where this has happened, there have often been highly complex adaptations both anatomical and neural. The major idea here is that the complex changes which were necessary to develop an organ which eventually could be used for symbolic language production were selected for singing and not for speech. Convergent evolution to what may have happened to modern humans can be observed in song birds. Also song birds developed highly complex adaptations, anatomical and neural, as a result of natural selection for better song capacities [Note 5]. Music and mating

“Song production and song preference play an important role in mating in song birds. Possibly music had a similar role originally in human mating – and it still has to some extent. Below are some of the several possible examples of the central role of music in courting behaviour. In several cultures males indeed bring serenades for their beloved. Also, male singers and musicians in general exert strong physical attractiveness on females (some females even have orgastic experiences during concerts). Much poetry and love texts sound silly when proclaimed, but are quite acceptable and even touching and convincing when sung. Adolescents meet through singing, listening to music and dancing.

“Moreover, sexual selection of the ability to sing is more plausible than sexual selection of the ability to speak. Sexual selection requires only an inherited preference for singers of distinctive emotional melodies rather than good story telling – something that requires that language itself is first well understood.

“However, it might be objected that this fails to explain why females would also sing and speak. It should be noted that, while it is true that in many song birds only males sing, females inherit genetically the abilities to sing – something that can be shown since female singing can be triggered by hormonal treatment. Therefore, it is evolutionarily possible that a small genetic change triggered hormonal changes so that singing by females became possible, after it had first been sexually selected for in males. From considering some tropical song birds, we might understand how song capacity of females might have been selected for, eventually after it arose in males by sexual selection first.” (Ibid.)


Read the entire article and you will see that the Von Humboldt position is perfectly respectable today and answers a lot of question. Our Hominid ancestors evolved with organs designed to imitate the sounds around them. Homosapiens developed as a kind of “singing ape.” The control center for that function was/is in the old brain, the right temporal lobe. We might find corroboration for the primacy of singing by looking at the function of the strap muscles that suspend the larynx. 

The muscles which lower the larynx by a downward pull are the sternothyroid muscles, which insert into the thyroid cartilage and pull down towards the sternum, somewhat towards 7 0’Clock position, the sternohyoid muscles which insert into the hyoid bone and pull down towards the sternum, and the omohyoid muscles which insert into the hyoid bone and pull down over to the scapula. These three muscle groups we will euphemistically call, “the front down- pullers.” These muscles are not used in speaking. Notice they are large muscles so their function must be large for whatever purpose they were naturally selected. They are used in making jungle imitative noises or in singing. They are not consciously controllable but have a strong reflexive cueing from the respiratory system. A preparatory deep full breath cues them to contract. This shows that the primacy of singing can be observed within the musculature naturally selected. We see that the larynx and strap muscles evolved first for “singing” rather than speech.


The Sternothyroid muscles


The Sternohyoid and Omohyoid Muscles




The Suspension system






Dr. Van Lawrence was one of the premiere laryngologists who worked with singers. He had this to say about the action of the front down-pullers:


“In the last several years, we’ve become increasingly aware of the vital importance of the neck strap muscles (sternothyroid, sternohyoid, omohyoid) in high-range voice production—thanks in part to some work done at the Haskins Laboratories. These muscles seem to be necessary for stabilizing the main firm structures of the larynx so that the smaller and more delicate intrinsic laryngeal muscles can function optimally” (VOCAL HEALTH AND SCIENCE, NATS, p.49).


Dr. Van Lawrence cautions singers who may have thyroid gland surgery to tell the surgeon NOT to cut across the straps and re-suture. To do so may cost the singer his/her high notes. Indeed this connection was seen when singers who had thyroid surgery had their straps cut, to allow the surgeon more room to operate. The sternothyroid, and sternohyoid muscles were cut and later sutured back together. The result was that the singers lost some of their high notes due to the loss of some muscular function.  The speakers had no loss of function since these muscles are not used in speech.


What does this have to do with “talent” in singing? Let’s look at how modern man “accesses” right brain functions today. Much of all creativity comes from right brain activity. People go through a variety of processes to access the right brain’s ability to facilitate creativity. Most people have to work to learn to paint, but not everyone. Sometimes people just pick up a brush and can paint beautifully. The same can be said for other forms of creativity including singing. The ability of the right brain to “remember” how to be creative is what I am calling evolutionary memory. It would be reasonable to hypothesize that some people would have more of that than others. It begins to give us a deeper definition of “talent.”  In most people there would still be the need for training, but training might not be efficacious in everyone. If singing is a cultured form of primitive noise-making, it still does not follow that making primitive noises will teach someone to sing beautifully. Historic vocal pedagogy will still be required to teach most people how to sing. The advantage of our theory is that it also explains the few people who can sing beautifully without any lessons. Such people are there and we currently attempt to explain them away as simply “gifted,” by which we mean little more than “freaks,” since we cannot explain the “gift.”  The advantage of our theory is that it gives us a beginning understanding of the “gift.”


If our theory is true we might expect to find corroboration by looking at other functions in the right temporal lobe. It is well known that concepts of an afterlife go all the way back to our earliest Homosapien ancestors. Furthermore, at least since Dr. Wilder Penfield mapped the human brain it has been known that stimulation of the Sylvan fissure in the right temporal lobe produces visions and out of body experiences. In short the Sylvan fissure is the biological correlate to the seat of the soul and human religious experience. Its proximity to the area controlling singing may explain the strong interrelationship between singing and religious consciousness. Singing is often, in itself considered to be a spiritual experience, but it is also utilized in a cultural and formal way within the practice of religion.


Dr. Melvin Morse did specialized study of the right temporal lobe of the brain and came up with a theory which is certainly more radical than anything I have proposed about singing. He says in part:


    “Deep right temporal lobe and associated limbic lobe structures are clearly linked to human religious experiences of all types, including conversion experiences and near death experiences. Simply because religious experiences are brain based does not automatically lessen or demean their spiritual significance. Indeed, the findings of neurological substrates to religious experiences can be argued to provide evidence for their objective reality.

I speculate that our right temporal lobe allows humans to interact with a timeless space-less “non-local” reality. The clinical experience of accessing that reality is an important component in religious experiences. The existence of such a reality is predicted by modern quantum theoretical physics.

Such a theory has value in that it provides a theoretical explanation for many well-documented phenomena which currently exist outside our current theoretical scientific model. I will review its implications for a better understanding of two of them, remote viewing and mind-body healing.

For example, one of the difficulties in accepting mind-body healing as mainstream medical therapeutic modality is that there is no coherent theory of how it might work. If we accept that there is a non-local reality as evidenced by the Aspect experiments, Rupert Sheldrake’s morphic forms would seemingly exist within that non-local reality. I postulate that our right temporal lobe is the biological vehicle for morphic resonance, explaining how meditative and dissociative states can result in corrections to the body’s DNA.

This theory results in potential scientific studies that can advance our understanding of human consciousness and paranormal talents. I predict that even if my hypothesis is proven wrong, advances in understanding mind-body healing will occur in the process of investigating it.”  (THE RIGHT TEMPORAL LOBE AND ASSOCIATED LIMBIC LOBE STRUCTURES AS THE BIOLOGICAL INTERFACE WITH AN INTERCONNECTED UNIVERSE,  Melvin Morse M.D.)


Dr. Morse also tells us that he has developed “A How-to Manual to Understand
Our Right Temporal Lobe:

”I am developing a practical manual to teach people how to use the area of our brain linked to near death experiences. We evolved our brains about 200,000 years ago, and it came without an owner’s manual. We have many residual or unused talents such as remote viewing, telepathy, healing touch, and weak telekinetic abilities which are linked to this same brain area. Anyone can learn to use this latent area of our brain and have spiritual and near death experiences.”


All of these intriguing ideas about creative ability and the right temporal lobe do not prove my theory about singing and evolutionary memory but they certainly are consistent with it.

In summary, it is my theory that Homosapiens evolved as a form of singing ape. Our vocal organs evolved first to enable us to imitate the sounds in our environment. Environmental, imitative sounds quickly evolved into a type of singing or vocal utterance which was the precursor to the invention of speech. Speech made use of organs designed for a grander purpose. When speech was invented it quickly became dominant and the older function of singing became more ritualized. Theoretically everyone should be able to sing. But practically some people can access the right temporal lobe control area more than others, just as some people can paint, sculpt, or do Zen better than others. This ability to access the right temporal control area used for singing, I have called evolutionary or genetic memory. Perhaps there are indeed better techniques to give us more control of the right temporal lobe, as Dr. Morse suggests. If so, we should use them in addition to historic vocal pedagogy to enable people to sing.


Joseph Shore