Tim Falconer, pictured. Photograph by Kourosh Keshiri.
That piano was mocking me, I’m sure of it.
A few years ago, I went on a writer’s retreat at the Banff Centre. My studio featured a Bluthner baby grand piano, which I had to water. Seriously. That part of Alberta has an arid climate—it was an especially hot, dry summer, too—and pianos require a certain level of humidity to prevent the wood from warping. A couple of times a week, I filled a small plastic watering can, stuck its long spout into the baby grand’s internal humidifier and poured. I did this chore cheerfully, but otherwise I never touched the piano. That’s because, although I love music, I don’t play any instruments; in fact, I didn’t even sing back then, because I was tone deaf.
Or so I’d always thought. One day, as I worked at my desk beside the piano, listening to music on my Bose speakers, I wondered how someone with ten thousand songs on his computer could be tone deaf. It was baffling. When I hosted a musicale at the studio—my way of ensuring the baby grand’s keys didn’t go untickled—several opera singers showed up, and I asked them. They scoffed at the idea. One even offered to prove me wrong.
The next day, mezzo-soprano Catharin Carew showed me some breathing exercises, then asked me to match her notes. Her verdict: I wasn’t singing the right notes, but I had a good, resonant voice. She didn’t think I was tone deaf; I could differentiate notes, and when I sung the wrong one I was off by what she considered a perfect amount. “Instead of being ninety-seven cents off,” she said, “you’re exactly a dollar off.” I had no sense of why that was a good thing, but Carew seemed pleased, so I eagerly repeated her explanation to anyone who would listen, the way a kid shares a joke he doesn’t really understand.
Studies indicate that, while 17 percent of us believe we’re tone deaf, only 4 percent of people actually have amusia, the oddly inappropriate technical term for a condition that only the mean-spirited would consider amusing. Perhaps the Zimbabweans have it right with the proverb, “If you can walk you can dance. If you can talk you can sing.”
I sure know how to talk, so I screwed up the courage to visit Micah Barnes. A tall, well-built singing coach with a mop of dark hair and a small soul patch, he owns lots of vinyl; among the albums on display when I first visited him was The Supremes Sing Holland-Dozier-Holland. I really just wanted to hang out and listen to that, but Barnes sat down on his piano bench as I struggled to hide my panic. He hummed a note and I tried to match it. He didn’t wince. We did it again, and he pointed out that I was finding the right note, though not right away, so we’d need to work on speeding up that mental process.
He told me I could sing harmony, though I didn’t have the melody yet. When he asked me if I realized I was singing in harmony—this is what Carew’s dollar metaphor was all about—I admitted I never have any idea whether I’m singing the right note at all.
Barnes understood. But he still asked me to sing a song.
“Oh, I can’t sing,” I insisted.
“Okay,” he said. “That’s a good place to start.”
Barnes seemed like a perfect fit for me: he’s into the mental, emotional and psychological sides of singing, not just the technical aspects. He didn’t think I had any “tone impairment,” and said that, though I’d certainly need to work hard, I could learn to sing. That was something I never thought possible. And so, in the winter of 2011, I started my lessons—and a sometimes-humiliating journey into what we hear when we listen to music.
While traveling through India in the 1980s, Andrew Cash found himself on a packed train at 7 am. He was the only Westerner in a car full of young men commuting to a textile factory outside Bombay. Seeing his guitar, they asked him to sing. He declined. Surprised, they pressed him again, and when that didn’t work, one man said, “Okay, we’ll sing first.”
The workers traded songs for half an hour until Cash finally pulled out his guitar. The other passengers didn’t know “Monday Morning on the Move,” a song Cash had written about going to work, and they spoke little English. But they sang along anyway, making up the words as they went.
Cash was in the respected Toronto punk band L’Étranger and later started a successful solo career. His experience in India was starkly different from the performance dynamic back home, where concerts follow a predictable routine: the band plays, the audience watches. Years later, Cash, who is now a Member of Parliament, still marvels at how comfortable the young men were singing out loud, in public—and at such an early hour. “It was no big deal,” he told me, “just something they did as a matter of course.”
Music is at least forty thousand years old—probably older than speech. As a form of primitive emotional communication, it likely served an important evolutionary role. One theory suggests that, because music creates social ties, early humans who sang and played instruments together had a better chance of survival. Another theory—one favoured by Darwin and tested (with mixed results) by every teenage guy who ever picked up a guitar—is that the more musical the man, the more mates he attracts.
However it developed, we know that music stimulates the ventral tegmental area in the brain. This pleasure centre produces the chemical messenger dopamine and is linked to reward and motivation; it’s also turned on by chocolate, cocaine and love. When the VTA is stimulated, it triggers emotional responses to music that are separate from our intellectual ones. So even someone who can’t catch blatant musical errors—wrong notes in “Happy Birthday,” for example—can still tell if a song is happy or sad. Studies also show that young children can differentiate between scary and peaceful music, and that people can interpret emotion in music even when a song is in another language.
But somewhere along the way, we screwed it up. While just about everyone likes music, most of us rarely, if ever, actually make it. True, we don’t need to be accomplished sopranos to enjoy a song—just as we don’t need to paint to enjoy Vermeer or Monet—but singing is an essential social pastime in other cultures around the world. In the West, though, we’ve professionalized singing so much that only the talented and trained tend to do it in public. Unless we count alcohol-fueled karaoke fanatics or deluded contestants on reality TV, all but the most uninhibited among us prefer to mumble through hymns in church and lip-synch national anthems at hockey games.
We’d rather leave it to the pros. Indeed, despite the rise of illegal downloading, music remains a multi-billion-dollar business. Each new technology—radio, records, TV, tapes, CDs, mp3s—increased music’s popularity and altered the way we relate to it. Couples swoon to “our song” and carefully choose the first dance at their weddings. Some people even select what they want played at their funerals. And, more than ever, music helps delineate our social tribes. “Musical subcultures exist because our guts tell us certain kinds of music are for certain kinds of people,” writes Carl Wilson in Let’s Talk About Love: A Journey to the End of Taste. “It’s most blatant in the identity war that is high school, but music never stops being a badge of recognition. And in the offhand rhetoric of dismissal—‘teenybopper pap,’ ‘only hippies like that band,’ ‘sounds like music for date rapists’—we bar the doors of the clubs we don’t want to claim us as members.”
So we load up our iPods and talk about “the soundtracks of our lives.” Regardless of what attracts us to it, the music we listen to helps us define ourselves. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. But even as we enlist music to fashion our identities, few of us actually sing—unless it’s in the shower, the car or anywhere else where no one can hear us.
While I’ve long resigned myself to never singing in public, I have tried karaoke. About two decades ago, after an office party, my not-yet-wife Carmen and I found ourselves at a Korean restaurant. Karaoke was a fairly new phenomenon in Toronto then, so I had no idea what I was in for. Our friends sang a few songs, and soon we had no choice but to try it. Carmen chose the Fine Young Cannibals’ cover of Elvis Presley’s “Suspicious Minds.” By the time we got to the mic, the lyrics were already crawling across the screen. We scrambled to catch up, but before long, I heard the woman at a nearby table groan, “Ah, you suck.”
Despite such public disgraces, music has always brought me joy. At twelve, I went to my first concert, an all-day, all-Canadian affair at Varsity Stadium headlined by the Guess Who. By sixteen, I wanted to be Marvin Gaye. In the late seventies, I pogoed at punk shows. Even today, I still buy CDs, download dozens of songs a month and regularly go to gigs where I am old enough to be the father of everyone else in the crowd.
When I was ten or eleven, my sisters and I discovered a copy of the Hair soundtrack at the Muskoka cottage my parents rented every August. Some of the songs were already radio hits, but I soon learned the others and started singing, “Masturbation can be fun,” from “Sodomy,” everywhere I went. The au pair my mother had hired pulled me aside. “Do you know what that word means?”
When I admitted I didn’t, she suggested, “Well, I don’t think you should sing it until you do.”
Although I found this conversation more puzzling than awkward—at least until my vocabulary improved—it reinforced the message I’d received at school. A girl in my class complained to Mrs. Lennox that my off-key singing was a real problem for her, so would I please stop it or move. I stopped singing. In public, anyway.
I’m not alone. My friend Kelly Crowe, who grew up in small-town Ontario, was about ten when she joined the United Church junior choir, which was short of members. But the choir leader asked her to stand in the back and insisted that, rather than sing, she just mouth the words. “And so that’s what I did,” says Crowe, who has since learned to play guitar. “I’ve been mouthing the words ever since, too terrified to sing a note.”
Ask a group of kindergarteners if they can sing and they’ll all put their hands up; ask high-school students and only a few will. It’s learned behaviour—or, rather, it’s behaviour caused by a lack of learning. Drawing is the same. Stephen Zeifman, a former high-school teacher who now runs an art school in Port Rexton, Newfoundland, says that as young kids we all think we can draw—our parents even hang our stick-figure masterpieces on the fridge. But at some point we decide we’re no good at it, probably because we see someone who’s better. That’s an understandable response, but it’s also silly. After all, we don’t stop playing sports just because we aren’t the best on the team. Zeifman says he can teach just about everyone to draw, and with a few simple tests, he can identify the tiny minority who simply can’t learn.
Singing is also something we should all be able to do, even if we do it badly. Voice is one of the most basic forms of human expression. According to ethnomusicologist Gillian Turnbull, when we speak our intonation, timbre and register can convey even more meaning than our words; in music, these qualities interact with melody, pitch and rhythm to make singing even more powerful. The guys I play hockey with on Friday afternoons have regular jam sessions with guitars, keyboards, drums, a banjo and a flute. And I long to join them, to step up to the mic and croon away.
Isabelle Peretz made me an espresso in her office. This, I would soon realize, was the equivalent of giving a cigarette to a man about to face the firing squad. Peretz, a cognitive neuropsychologist and a professor at the Université de Montréal, is a founding co-director of the International Laboratory for Brain, Music and Sound Research, known by the acronym BRAMS. As we waited for the coffee, Nathalie Gosselin, a BRAMS researcher at the time, told me, “Like in Hitchcock, we create tension with music.”
I’d traveled to the lab, which is in a former convent on the north side of Mont Royal, to be tested for amusia—to determine once and for all whether I was really, scientifically tone deaf. Another researcher, Mihaela Felezeu, sat me down in front of a computer and gave me a set of headphones. As a program played pairs of melodies, I had to indicate whether they were the same or different. I found this extremely difficult; by the time I was listening to the second melody, I couldn’t remember the first. I blamed it on my wandering mind.
A second test measured my ability to detect metre. It asked me if a piece of music was a waltz or a march, which have different time signatures. (They all sounded like waltzes to me.) Then I had to listen to five tones and indicate whether the fourth was the same as the others. The listening session done, Felezeu recorded me singing “Happy Birthday,” followed by “la la la” to the tune of “Happy Birthday,” then “aaah” from low to high to low again. It was truly embarrassing. After a spatial test, Felezeu recited a string of numbers, which I had to repeat backwards. The strings became longer and longer as we went, but I could tell by the look on her face that I was acing this one.
I’d already had two lessons with Barnes. I knew I was a dreadful singer; the recordings of our sessions were painful to listen to, even for me. Still, I expected Peretz to tell me that I was just untrained, not really tone deaf.
No such luck. I was, the tests made clear, a typical amusic—part of a tiny, hopeless minority.
“Tone deaf” is a term people throw around with relish—it’s also a diss in politics, public relations and writing—but congenital amusia is a specific disorder that affects the way the brain processes music. Some people may be beat deaf and have trouble with rhythm, though this appears to be extremely rare. Much more common, at least among amusics, is pitch deafness—difficulty recognizing or reproducing relative pitch.
This is how we hear music: sound waves move from the outer ear through the ear canal to the eardrum, causing it to vibrate. These vibrations move tiny bones in the middle ear, transferring the movement to the cochlea in the inner ear. Fluid inside the cochlea vibrates tiny hairs, called cilia, which stimulate nerves. The nerves then send signals to the brain, which interprets the signals as sound.
For a few of us, though, something goes wrong—not in the ear, but in the brain. We don’t process what we hear as well as we should. Impaired pitch recognition and production suggests a problem in the brain’s action-perception network—specifically, a neural structure called the arcuate fasciculus. Made of nerve fibres, it connects the lateral temporal cortex (home of the primary auditory cortex) with the frontal lobe. When researchers at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center and Harvard Medical School used MRIs to compare brain images of amusics and regular folk, they discovered that the latter had larger pathways. Neuroscientist Psyche Loui speculates that these pathways may be more active in non-amusics, too. If this theory is right, it means I have a bad connection in my head. Unfortunately, I can’t just hang up and dial again.
While amusia can sometimes be caused by brain trauma, its congenital form is more like dyslexia or dysphasia. The deficit runs in families, and is probably the result of a genetic variation. Statistically, there’s a 40 percent chance my siblings also suffer from amusia. Though they all like music, my mother and three of my four sisters received relatively low scores on BRAMS’s online test. (We’re pretty sure the sister who didn’t take it is the most tone deaf of the bunch.) And my late father had to have been tone deaf as well.
My results in the BRAMS tests all pointed to tone deafness. In the five-tone test, I was able to detect a quarter-semitone change in pitch less than 40 percent of the time. (A semitone is the difference between two adjoining piano keys.) So while not all notes sound the same to me, I can’t tell if something is only a little off. That’s why BRAMS scientists call this kind of amusia “a disorder of fine-grained pitch discrimination.” Many amusics are also bad at recognizing and remembering melody. I like to think I have a knack for recognizing songs, but my melody memory is poor, as indicated by my low score on the test that asked me whether two melodies were the same or different.
But I’m distinct from a lot of amusics in one important respect. Most congenitally tone-deaf people can’t enjoy music, though few admit this, for fear that they’ll be considered inhuman. In the lab, BRAMS researchers have heard people talk about their indifference and then, an hour later, say on camera, “Of course I love music!” One amusic told Gosselin that, during his divorce, his wife said, “You don’t understand emotion. The proof of that is you don’t like music.”
But the two enduring passions in my life are hockey and music. Peretz and Gosselin were surprised to hear this. Skeptical, in fact. They asked if I liked only certain kinds of music and suggested I might merely be reacting to the words. While it’s true that I have a fondness for literate songwriters—Elvis Costello, John Darnielle of the Mountain Goats, John K. Samson of the Weakerthans—the lyrics aren’t what first attracts to me to a song; after all, it usually takes a few listens to really catch the words. And with some music I like—early R.E.M., for example—who knows what the singer is saying?
The role of music in my life clearly intrigued Peretz. “I am stunned. And I’ve seen many amusic cases,” she said. “I would love to be in your brain.”
The inside of my brain was not a serene place in the days after my diagnosis. Three musicians, including a professional singing coach, had concluded that I was trainable. Plus, since most people who believe they’re tone deaf actually aren’t, I thought the odds were in my favour. It’s one thing to be afflicted with something common; it’s quite another to learn that you’re some kind of subhuman freak. I was devastated.
Even today, I’ve told few people that I am amusic. I like to think I have a reputation as a knowledgeable music fan—someone who turns friends on to great new albums and curates much-appreciated mix CDs; the guy who buys the tickets and rounds people up for shows. What would my friends think once they knew I was tone deaf? I’d be ruined.
Barnes spent most of my next singing lesson trying to talk me out of my funk. He said the diagnosis only reinforced what we already knew: I’d have to work hard. “The worst thing about all this is the emotional, underlying shit that stops us from learning. That’s all I ever deal with, whether it’s you or a recording artist or a Broadway actor,” he said. “What I’m watching for is whether you get downhearted, whether you go away saying, ‘This fucking sucks’ and ‘I hate that guy’ and ‘I can’t do this.’ The fact that you love music is a compelling argument for your ability to focus on this.”
Always quick to offer positive reinforcement, Barnes regularly insisted that my ability to match his note was improving, that I was getting it on the second try instead of the third or fourth. At one session, after I’d sung along to Freddy Fender’s version of “Before the Next Teardrop Falls,” Barnes asked how I thought it sounded.
“It sounds the way it always does when I sing along: great,” I replied.
A few days later, I was driving to Georgian Bay by myself. My iPod was in one of its ebullient moods, pumping gem after singable gem into my car’s sound system: Joe Strummer’s “Silver and Gold,” the Hold Steady’s “Stuck Between Stations,” the Neko Case cover of Neil Young’s “Dreamin’ Man.” As I bombed along the empty highway, I belted out each song loudly, gleefully—and, I soon realized, tunelessly. “Shit,” I said to the Canadian Shield. “The only thing these lessons are doing is making me hear what a terrible singer I am.”
Later, I adopted a more optimistic take: if I can tell that I suck, maybe Barnes is right—my ear is slowly getting better. My vocal lessons weren’t exactly fun, but I didn’t dread them. Barnes was patient and encouraging, and we made each other laugh. I always felt better after a session.
Practicing, however, was another matter. I crammed, ignoring my exercises until a few days before the next lesson, then going hard. Not hard enough, apparently. At my eleventh lesson, Barnes dropped the nurturing approach and finally played the hardass. “You have to get serious about this,” he chastised me. “You’re not really engaged with this process I’m doing with you. You haven’t jumped in. It’s a heavy thing for you to go from ‘I can’t sing’ to ‘I can sing.’” As chewing-outs go, it was fairly tame, though he apologized the next week. But I knew he was right. I couldn’t shake the question that had nagged me since my diagnosis: “Am I like the colour-blind guy who wants to be an interior designer?”
Seven months after my initial visit, I returned to BRAMS. The first day was nearly eight hours of misery: cooped up in a tiny booth, staring at a computer screen with headphones on, failing test after test—first with Sean Hutchins and then Marion Cousineau, both post-doctoral fellows. I left the old convent, put in my earbuds and moped my way to the metro station, thinking, “Screw the singing lessons. I give up.”
I went back for more poking and prodding the next day. When Cousineau was finished with me, Felezeu took over. Her last experiment was an auditory test, just to make sure my embarrassing flaw wasn’t due to a hearing problem. Despite all the loud concerts I attend and the cranked volume on my iPod, my results were above average. I hadn’t even lost the ability to hear high frequencies—unusual for someone my age. “Finally,” I said, “after three days in this lab, some good news.”
I was about to get more. Before I left BRAMS, I sat down with Hutchins, who had the results from the tests he’d given me the day before. He’d asked me to sing “baa” at different registers: low, medium-low, medium, medium-high and high. Then his computer randomized them and he recorded me as I tried to match my own notes. This was an expanded version of a test I’d taken when I first visited the lab—and a comparison of the two showed “modest improvement.”
I asked Hutchins if he thought I should continue my singing lessons. “You do have pitch-perception abilities that are below what you’d find in most people,” he said. “When you go through any music lessons, you’re not able to use what you consciously hear to influence your singing as much as other people might. So you’ll need more practice to improve your singing than someone else.” He didn’t want to oversell my potential, but he thought I should go for it.
When I emailed Barnes, he responded: “This is good news about your forward motion…it’s scientifically tested. Makes your coach happy.”
When he was in university, Frank Russo snagged a job looking after special guests at Toronto’s Ontario Place. One day, B.B. King came to play the Forum, the park’s music venue at the time. A fan and a musician himself, Russo took the opportunity to chat with the great guitarist and noted his calm, reserved demeanour. Five hours later, though, Russo was struck by King’s performance style. The arched back, shaking body and frenzied facial expressions were startlingly at odds with what he’d seen earlier. He started to wonder about the visual side of music.
Russo is now a psychology professor at Ryerson University, and he came to the field through music. “For me, it was a lens to understand myself, other people, how we think, how we remember things,” he said. “Eventually it came to my attention that there are people studying the psychology of music.” Russo is now the director of Ryerson’s Science of Music, Auditory Research and Technology Lab. He believes that what we perceive when we “listen” to music is, on some abstract level, movement: we can hear it, see it and feel it.
When we watch someone sing, for example, we subtly activate our facial muscles to mimic the singer’s facial movements. We can’t normally see this, but Russo can detect it by recording changes in the electrical potential at the surface of the skin. Within 250 milliseconds of seeing and hearing a singer smile, the audience will smile in response. If this automatic process goes on long enough, the smiling will rub off and influence the audience’s mood. We also feel music: deaf people, for example, can dance at clubs because they sense the bass. Russo co-developed the Emoti-chair, a device that allows deaf people to feel music through vibro-tactile stimulation, but even those of us with normal hearing perceive music partially through the vibrations of sound waves.
All this has convinced Russo that we don’t hear music the way we think we do. “We think our experience of music is about sound and it’s about pitch,” but there’s more to it than that, he said. “Music is this mushy signal that is deeply moving, but we don’t really know what it is, what it’s trying to convey. That’s maybe part of its beauty—trying to sort out what it is.”
When I first contacted Russo, he was just about to start a study examining people who have normal pitch and rhythm perception but are indifferent to music—the opposite of me. “It did not really occur to me that folks like you might exist,” he emailed back. But my case didn’t surprise him. He believes that not everyone has the same ability—or willingness—to be absorbed by music. And he doesn’t think that music absorption—the ability to become lost in it—is determined by musical aptitude.
Even the pitch-impaired can recognize songs based on the rhythm of the first few notes, which might explain why I’m good at playing name-that-tune despite my poor melody memory. “I’m sure you’re hearing things in the music,” Russo said. “They’re just not the things that we tend to think about in the Western classical tradition, in the science of music.” In the West, music is mostly about pitch and rhythm—especially pitch. But there’s a lot more going on than pitch (the highness or lowness of the sounds) and interval (the relationship between pitches). Some of the other elements of music are contour (the path of the melody), rhythm (the pattern of sounds in time), metre (the organization of a recurring beat) and timbre (how a voice or instrument sounds).
Russo figured that, when I listen to music, I respond to these “extra-pitch characteristics.” So while I may be weak on pitch and metre, perhaps I make up for it by being strong on contour and rhythm. He believes music, emotion and motion are closely linked. And, he assured me, my problems with pitch don’t necessarily mean my friends should ignore me when I recommend a band. Music is “massively over-determined,” he said, meaning that musical phrases are conveyed through several often redundant cues: for example, the first beat tends to be strong, and the first note is usually one that’s important in the key of the piece. The path of the melody may resemble an arch going up and then coming down, and the final pitch will be longer, on average, than other notes in the phrase. Music also conveys emotion in several ways. A sense of melancholy can be created by a minor key, slow tempo, narrow pitch range or lower pitch level. So I may be adept at picking up on subtleties in, say, timing and timbre that other people aren’t concerned with because their brains are so focused on pitch.
Gillian Turnbull, though, isn’t convinced by Russo’s movement theory. In fact, she’s doesn’t think I hear music any differently than most other people who simply lack training. As an ethnomusicologist, she studies music and culture, including the way we use and experience music. At Ryerson and York University, she’s taught students who don’t have backgrounds in music, and they tend to focus not on pitch, but on lyrics, beat and timbre. They also struggle with the concept of pitch, can’t hear chord changes and have trouble distinguishing between “high” and “low.” In other words, they are not that different from me.
While Turnbull doubts I’m even tone deaf, Russo is optimistic about the brain’s ability to retrain itself. He suggested that, if I continue my lessons, it’s possible I could not only learn to sing, but even pass amusia tests. “There’s something atypical in the way that you’re hearing pitch,” he said. “But I suspect, if you get enough feedback about what’s right and wrong, your brain is going to figure this pattern out.”
In 1944, seventy-six-year-old Florence Foster Jenkins played Carnegie Hall. If her age didn’t make the event unusual, the American soprano’s complete lack of singing ability certainly did. She had no sense of pitch or rhythm, and her voice had a tendency to disappear on high notes. And yet she held annual recitals at New York’s Ritz-Carlton Hotel until she booked Carnegie. “She was exceedingly happy in her work,” wrote Robert Bager in his New York World-Telegram review of the sold-out show. “It is a pity so few artists are. And her happiness was communicated as if by magic to her listeners…who were stimulated to the point of audible cheering, even joyous laughter and ecstasy by the inimitable singing.” For her part, Jenkins, who died shortly after the infamous gig, said, “People may say I can’t sing, but no one can ever say I didn’t sing.”
I will never make it to Carnegie Hall, just as I’ll never play right wing in the National Hockey League. I’m okay with both of those disappointments, but I still play hockey three hours a week, and get a lot of delight out of it. All I really want is to be able to make music as badly and enjoyably as I play old-timers hockey.
I could simply say, “Oh, well, I can’t sing. No big deal.” But researchers are finding fascinating and powerful links between music and health. They’re using music in cancer treatment, pain management and end-of-life care, in therapy for Alzheimer’s and stroke patients, and to help people with Parkinson’s disease walk more steadily and quickly. As for singing specifically, the health benefits include elevated mood, greater lung capacity and a strengthened immune system due to lower stress levels. Cervantes was probably onto something when he wrote, “He who sings scares away his woes.”
I never hoped to become a professional musician, or even join a garage band—I just want to be able to sing along, without embarrassment, when my friends bring out their guitars. Now that I’ve taken my first stab at it, I can’t help thinking about one of the most charming myths of popular music: Robert Johnson went down to the crossroads of two Mississippi highways, sold his soul to the devil and returned an incredible bluesman. That’s a deal I’d gladly make just to sing in tune.