carry a tune

Nuwanda

Senior Member
Spanish
Hi everybody

I have a sentence without further context that I can't understand:

He can't carry a tune to save his life, but other than that

Any suggestions???

THanks a lot!
 
  • panjandrum

    Lapsed Moderator
    English-Ireland (top end)
    To carry a tune is more than the ability to sing in tune, though that is important as well. To carry a tune is the ability to remember a tune and be able to sing it.

    And just in case the rest of the sentence needs explanation ...

    He can't (or couldn't) xxxxxx to save his life - is a common way of saying, colloquially and emphatically, that he is not able to xxxxxx.
     

    quietdandelion

    Banned
    Formosa/Chinese
    Wait, I forgot I can't carry a tune. Can you first teach me to sing?

    Are there any other connotations of "I can't carry a tune" except for "I can't sing?" Thanks.
     

    Thomas Tompion

    Senior Member
    English - England
    Wait, I forgot I can't carry a tune. Can you first teach me to sing?

    Are there any other connotations of "I can't carry a tune" except for "I can't sing?" Thanks.
    Nobody says I can't carry a tune. I can't sing can suggest a multitude of weaknesses: one might not have a good voice, one might not sing in tune, or one might actually be tone deaf - one can't distinguish one note from another. I can't hold a line means I can't sing a tune when someone else is singing another one, even though they fit harmonically. Which are you trying to say, Quiet One?
     

    quietdandelion

    Banned
    Formosa/Chinese
    Thanks, Thomas and tottallyoff.
    Are you serious when you say "Nobody says 'I can't carry a tune?'"
    The base sentence is an excerpt from an English magazine for high school kids, May issue, 2007. It's supposed to be very up-to-date.
     

    Thomas Tompion

    Senior Member
    English - England
    Thanks, Thomas and tottallyoff.
    Are you serious when you say "Nobody says 'I can't carry a tune?'"
    The base sentence is an excerpt from an English magazine for high school kids, May issue, 2007. It's supposed to be very up-to-date.
    I've investigated a bit, Quiet One. I was serious. I sing in important choirs and give concerts, and I've never heard the phrase carry a tune. However, Google gives 235,000 hits for the expression, many of which are for some sort of singing coach called Carry-a-tune; but some hits are for people using the expression to mean to sing a tune. I assume the expression is American; I don't think it's current in BE, certainly not among musical people, most of whom don't have trouble singing a tune, of course.

    The fact that I spend time with them may explain why I've never heard the expression.
     

    quietdandelion

    Banned
    Formosa/Chinese
    Thanks, Thomas, for your precious time and investigation.
    Actually, I haven't the slightest idea of who uses the expression. I just want to know if it's still being used and if it's very popular. Now I know it's not, and I'm happy with your replies.
     

    river

    Senior Member
    U.S. English
    Can't carry a tune is used around here along with Can't carry a tune in a bucket and Can't carry a tune in a paper sack.
     

    konungursvia

    Banned
    Canada (English)
    Can't carry a tune is a good AE expression, meaning one is... well if not tone-deaf, at least musically not gifted enough to reproduce a melody in a way that is satisfactory to others.
     

    river

    Senior Member
    U.S. English
    Quiet,
    Re: "Thanks, river, for the extra info, but what does "carry a tune" mean to you?"

    To carry a tune means "to sing or hum accurately."

    Haven't you ever been in a car with someone who is singing or humming along with the radio? You can immediately tell if that person can carry a tune.
     

    sdgraham

    Senior Member
    USA English
    Nobody says I can't carry a tune. I can't sing can suggest a multitude of weaknesses: one might not have a good voice, one might not sing in tune, or one might actually be tone deaf - one can't distinguish one note from another. I can't hold a line means I can't sing a tune when someone else is singing another one, even though they fit harmonically. Which are you trying to say, Quiet One?
    Well, I frequently say "I can't carry a tune." (What's more, I can prove it.)
    I've never heard "I can't hold a line."
    This is from the U.S., of course.
     

    AngelEyes

    Senior Member
    English - United States
    quietdandelion,

    This phrase is very well-known in AE, and used all the time. We like it so much, we even embellish it, too! :D

    "I can't carry a tune to save my life."

    Tune, here, refers to the melody of the song, so it means you try to sing the melody, and either you can't sing the notes themselves on pitch (you sing flat), or you somehow can barely even sing the song so that the listener recognizes which song you're singing. The tune gets lost in your vocal translation. ;)


    AngelEyes
     

    panjandrum

    Lapsed Moderator
    English-Ireland (top end)
    I sing in important choirs and give concerts, and I've never heard the phrase carry a tune. However, Google gives 235,000 hits for the expression, many of which are for some sort of singing coach called Carry-a-tune; but some hits are for people using the expression to mean to sing a tune. I assume the expression is American; I don't think it's current in BE, certainly not among musical people, most of whom don't have trouble singing a tune, of course.
    Hang on there ThomasT - carry a tune is commonly used in many contexts. It may not be used in your elevated circles where no doubt an essential qualification for even wanting to enter is the ability to carry a tune.

    I suppose the choirs that I sing with are poor and humble little things by comparison with yours, but when discussing possible new members it would not be at all unusual for one of us to say something like, "There's no point in considering Bill, he can't even carry a tune." Or, more likely, a more colourful variant such as river has suggested.
     

    Thomas Tompion

    Senior Member
    English - England
    I suppose the choirs that I sing with are poor and humble little things by comparison with yours, but when discussing possible new members it would not be at all unusual for one of us to say something like, "There's no point in considering Bill, he can't even carry a tune." Or, more likely, a more colourful variant such as river has suggested.
    I'm sorry Panj. I hadn't meant to boast. It may make a difference how musical people are, and what level of expertise is expected. But I had a friend who was interested in tone-deafness: people who claimed to be tone-deaf came to see her and she sang scales up and down and asked them to guess which way she was going. I never heard her say that someone couldn't carry a tune.
     

    sdgraham

    Senior Member
    USA English
    I'm sorry Panj. But I had a friend who was interested in tone-deafness: people who claimed to be tone-deaf came to see her and she sang scales up and down and asked them to guess which way she was going. I never heard her say that someone couldn't carry a tune.
    My wife, with good reason, says that about me frequently, yet I recognize melodies as well as relative pitch. I cannot, however, reproduce it by singing.
    It seems to me that "tone deaf" is something of a misnomer. I wonder whether anybody lives in a world of single pitch. Perhaps it's simply a term applied to those of us sadly lacking in musical talent.
    Perhaps there's a kind of parallel to being color blind. I'm color blind, but I do not live in a world of blacks, whites and grays.
    As I look out the window, I see pink flowers on a bush with leaves of two shades of green. Yet, when somebody paints red letters on a green background, I cannot see it at all.
     

    GreenWhiteBlue

    Senior Member
    USA - English
    Thanks, Thomas and tottallyoff.
    Are you serious when you say "Nobody says 'I can't carry a tune?'".
    Thomas may have been serious, but he was also completely wrong. As has been noted above, it is a very, very common expression. It is certainly common in North America, and it seems to be fairly common in the British Isles as well.

    Just two weeks ago I asked my sister why she was not singing in church. Her actual response was "Because I can't carry a tune."
     

    Thomas Tompion

    Senior Member
    English - England
    Thomas may have been serious, but he was also completely wrong. As has been noted above, it is a very, very common expression. It is certainly common in North America, and it seems to be fairly common in the British Isles as well.

    Just two weeks ago I asked my sister why she was not singing in church. Her actual response was "Because I can't carry a tune."
    Now GreenWhiteBlue, You may think you are happily dancing on my grave about this. But I should like to point out:

    1. That I was quick to admit initially I might be wrong in my first post, and to point out subsequently that there were plenty of Google hits.

    2. That we established some time ago that it was a common expression in AE.

    3. That we have no evidence, apart from one self-deprecatory post from Belfast, to support your claim that it is 'fairly common' in BE.

    Now I am not going to be as disagreeable as to accuse you of being 'completely wrong' about any of this, and it may be that you are right about some of it. I haven't recently said anything other than that it is not an expression which I have heard in professional musical circles. I was not wrong in that, and I was not trying to mislead anyone.
     

    JamesM

    Senior Member
    Can't carry a tune is a good AE expression, meaning one is... well if not tone-deaf, at least musically not gifted enough to reproduce a melody in a way that is satisfactory to others.
    I think that's an excellent explanation. Using Thomas Tompion's example, a person who can't hear whether scales are ascending or descending is truly tone-deaf. A person who can hear the difference but can't replicate it reliably with their own voice "can't carry a tune," at least in AE.

    Is there an expression in BE for someone who can hear a tune but can't reliably reproduce it, other than "tone-deaf"? They may follow the general up-and-down movement of the tune, but the intervals and pitch are wrong some (or most) of the time.
     

    Thomas Tompion

    Senior Member
    English - England
    No need to argue.

    We now have proof that it's "fairly common" in BrE too - Google UK gives 10,300 hits, including a definition at answers.com. :)
    Who is this Justin Timberlake though, who is responsible for so many of them, Tomand Gerryfan? Isn't he American? You may be right about it being current, but I'm not sure we have proof yet. Where are all the BE contributors who use the expression frequently? I hope they turn up soon to support you. I'm not even parti pris about this. I want to hear of a number of people who speak BE and use the expression. Then we'll know. I take Panj's word for it, of course, so I probably live in an island. Is it a pop music expression, for instance? I wouldn't know about it if it is.
     

    GreenWhiteBlue

    Senior Member
    USA - English
    That we have no evidence, apart from one self-deprecatory post from Belfast, to support your claim that it is 'fairly common' in BE.
    Well, if we look at the Guardian website, we can find Observer restaurant critic Jay Rayner writing about London restaurants:

    But the food must deliver. Without that, it's like going to the opera, marvelling at the sets, adoring the lush sound of the orchestra but then discovering that the diva can't carry a tune.

    We also find Kathryn Flett writing about a "Rock School":
    Thus, in order to turn 'little angels into monsters of rock', it is proto-nerd, Josh (fluent in Elvish; can't carry a tune in a bucket) who is recruited as lead singer,

    If you prefer a newspaper with a somewhat different political viewpoint, how about the Daily Mail? Writing about the possibility that Melanie Griffith might play the role of Roxie Hart in the West End, Baz Bamigboye wrote:
    The actress played the part on Broadway last year. She can't carry a tune and isn't particularly light on her feet when it comes to kicking up her heels.

    Apparently, among the "nobodies" who use the term are writers for major British newspapers, who seem to assume that their readers are familiar with the pharase as well.


    I haven't recently said anything other than that it is not an expression which I have heard in professional musical circles.
    This is not surprising. In casual conversations with members of a ballet company, it is unlikely to hear anyone say "I can't dance because I have two left feet", but that does not mean that "two left feet" is a term used by "nobody" because professional dancers do not describe themselves that way. Indeed, I would be startled to learn that any professional singer admitted to being unable to carry a tune. Of course, there are many, many more people in the world than those who form professional musical circles, and a good many of them could not carry a tune in a peach basket.
     

    Thomas Tompion

    Senior Member
    English - England
    Well, if we look at the Guardian website, we can find Observer restaurant critic Jay Rayner writing about London restaurants:

    But the food must deliver. Without that, it's like going to the opera, marvelling at the sets, adoring the lush sound of the orchestra but then discovering that the diva can't carry a tune.
    Well, now, at last, you are giving some evidence. When I said we had no evidence, apart from Panj.'s post, I was right.

    Who are these 'nobodies' you are suddenly talking about? I haven't mentioned 'nobodies', nor would I.

    You suggest that my lack of experience disqualifies me from speaking about how this expression is used. I suspect it does; that is why I mentioned it, so that what I was saying could be viewed in that light.
     

    GreenWhiteBlue

    Senior Member
    USA - English
    Well, now, at last, you are giving some evidence. When I said we had no evidence, apart from Panj.'s post, I was right.
    And a rather sharp slap at Panjandrum it was. Certainly, though, when you said "Nobody says I can't carry a tune", you were not correct.

    Who are these 'nobodies' you are suddenly talking about? I haven't mentioned 'nobodies', nor would I.
    This is true. Your actual statement was:
    "Nobody says I can't carry a tune."

    Since we have three different writers in two newspapers saying the thing that "Nobody" says, it would appear that we have three different "Nobodies".

    You suggest that my lack of experience disqualifies me from speaking about how this expression is used.
    I suggest nothing of the kind. What I suggested was that the statement that a phrase is a common English expressions is not verified only by considering the conversations of a tiny, exceptional, and narrowly-defined minority of English speakers.
     

    tomandjerryfan

    Senior Member
    English (Canada)
    Okay, I hope this isn't an arguing match. :D

    Thomas_T, as GWB has pointed out, there are many sources at that link that are in fact credible sources. I meant for you to browse through the search and not just cherry pick a few links from the top. ;) I went to the Guardian UK website and did a search - in quotes - for the phrase "carry a tune" and there were many articles that came up by professional British writers. I'm certainly not going to doubt your knowledge as a native speaker of British English (since I don't speak BrE), but this phrase does appear to be used in the UK as well - at least someone there must be using it.

    Also, according to the definition at answers.com, it's far from being a pop expression. The expression dates back to the early 1800s according to answers.com.
     

    Thomas Tompion

    Senior Member
    English - England
    Okay, I hope this isn't an arguing match. :D
    Yes, so do I. I got rather irritated at being told I was completely wrong and I apologize to you and to GreenWhiteBlue for some provocative and thoughtless posts.

    I'm genuinely surprised. I'm very sorry I said that nobody said it - it is what I believed at the time.

    Thank you, Tomandjerryfan, for putting me right on this.
     

    konungursvia

    Banned
    Canada (English)
    I'm sorry Panj. I hadn't meant to boast. It may make a difference how musical people are, and what level of expertise is expected. But I had a friend who was interested in tone-deafness: people who claimed to be tone-deaf came to see her and she sang scales up and down and asked them to guess which way she was going. I never heard her say that someone couldn't carry a tune.
    With discussions about a world-wide language such as modern English, it is important to avoid ethnocentrism; the majority of "Americanisms", i.e. expressions we use which do not seem familiar to Britons, are traditional and common good English usage dating back 300-800 years. Chaucer, for example, frequently had his characters begin sentences with "I gesse" (I guess). It is a grave error to associate the many varieties of English spoken on the British Isles today with any sort of authority on our language. Nowadays, these are all mere minor branches of the family. :)
     
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