Magic has recently become possible in my story, and singing is the mechanism by which humans use magic. A totalitarian regime wants citizens who can speak, but not sing in any way, even poorly. (That is, they cannot produce a note at all.) If necessary, the speaking they are capable of can be whispering, or can be otherwise distorted, as long as it is intelligible.

Is there a surgical procedure or some other mechanism that can accomplish this?

Can the procedure be reversed?

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    $\begingroup$ Give everyone asthma, e.g., by increasing air pollution levels. Curing it is equally simple $\endgroup$ – nzaman Mar 9 at 11:01
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    $\begingroup$ Since you don't have the magic tag, I assume the answer cannot be "A totalitarian wizard did it". This comment is more of a clarification, because I know my first thought was "well, why don't the government just cast a spell to do that" and I know other people may have the same reaction. $\endgroup$ – VLAZ Mar 9 at 11:30
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    $\begingroup$ I would suggest some kind of drugs that inhibit the human brain capacity of perceiving the rythm. Basically, people would still be able to hear the notes, but they could no way follow the rythm of a song, so that singing would be impossible. I use a comment instead of an answer because I don't know how the loss of such capacity would impact the other activities of human beings: some activities require a kind of rythm to be effective, like sewing or even running: inhibiting rythm could cause an impredictable series of consequences... $\endgroup$ – McTroopers Mar 9 at 14:15
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    $\begingroup$ Free autotuning apps and some stereotypical teen pop artists. You will have a generation of tone deaf bastards to terrorize your world. $\endgroup$ – Renan Mar 9 at 14:54
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    $\begingroup$ What do you mean by "incapable of singing"? There are two possible meanings: incapable of signing well, and incapable of singing badly. For example, I cannot carry a tune for my life; whenever I attempt to sing a few bars (for example, to make a discussion partner aware of a song) the reaction in the audience is a mixture of horror and pity... $\endgroup$ – AlexP Mar 9 at 17:24

A totalitarian regime wants citizens who can speak, but not sing.

If you're willing to accept sign language as "speaking" you've two reasonably simple options.

  1. Cut their vocal cords
  2. Cut out their tongues

If you're not willing to accept sign language as speech for the purpose of your question then your only option would appear to be tone deafness.

  1. to be precise acquired amusia caused by brain damage.

They'll still be able to try to sing of course, you simply can't prevent that without physically removing the sound making organs but they won't be able to "sing" in any meaningful sense of the word.

Unless you assume a slightly more advanced knowledge of the brain areas involved than currently exists that's going to require a certain amount of research & experimentation to identify the correct bits of brain to cut out or scramble to achieve the specific type of acquired amusia that best suites your requirements but it's certainly doable, though not reversible.

It may be possible to achieve that with drugs as well but I've found no links myself to suggest that.

Those are pretty much the only (real world) science based options I can come up with for what you want, none of them seem a perfect match for what you're after but take your pick.

Can the procedure be reversed?

If you want something reversible (& amusia can't be achieved with drugs) then the vocal chords with sign language for speech are probably your only option, a medical silicon implant stuffed in between the vocal cords so they don't work that could then simply be removed perhaps.

Actually, that's the airway we're talking about there so simply stuffing it with a silicon plug probably isn't a good idea if you want them to keep breathing, some sort of collar or ring inserted to prevent them constricting for speech & sound modulation is probably best then.

On balance, some sort of vocal cord insert that can later be removed with sign language for speech is probably the most plausible procedure that achieves the closest to what you want.

  • $\begingroup$ Excellent! It doesn't need to be reversible, and it actually works better if it isn't. The weird constraints of my project (which is a musical set in alternate Earth during the 1950s) require that verbal talking be possible, but singing be actually impossible. So, a kind of lobotomy-esque procedure to induce amusia works perfectly. $\endgroup$ – 007th Bondsmith Mar 16 at 9:52

Use an Electrolarynx

The real world has artificial voiceboxes for people who have damaged voiceboxes.

They basically detect the motion of muscles in the throat and convert it into sound. Normal speech has many components not related to the throat - mouth shape, volume, etc, and thus the electrolarynx has traditionally sounded "robotic".

So surgically damage the voicebox of all citizens, and issue them a tool like the electrolarynx. If desired, make the issued voicebox particularly low quality to prevent tinkerers from hacking it to add additional capabilities, and make researching related technologies tightly regulated.

Now everyone speaks tonelessly, and is incapable of singing.

Everyone, that is, except for the elite, who have access to far more sophisticated models and/or corrective surgery.

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    $\begingroup$ As a bonus - it's possible that even sophisticated electrolarynx aren't compatible with magic as the sound they produce is "artificial" (this is a reasonable assumption, as otherwise just replaying a recorded magic song will produce magical effects...) $\endgroup$ – G0BLiN Mar 10 at 17:35
  • $\begingroup$ Neat solution! I'm not sure I can make it work for this particular project, but it's neat enough that I'd like to make another project with a singing magic system. (My setting is alternate history 1950s. The project is also a musical. I could go Wolfenstein on it, but I had been thinking to keep it generally technologically accurate.) $\endgroup$ – 007th Bondsmith Mar 16 at 9:48

To be funny enough, to stop people from signing, you don't go for their vocal chords. You go straight to the main man. The brain.
There are two areas in brain that are responsible for talking. Broca and Wernicke. One is responsible for understand meaning of words while second is responsible for translation of those meaning into spoken/written words. A mechanical ability.
Now the signing is located in all of the brain.
We don't "store" songs the same way we do with words. We store the melody. That's why we usually need to lookup the lyrics to understand them. Or focus really hard on dissecting the words we hear in a song. It's not so easy as deciphering speech.
BUT To remember the song (and communicate with one) we need to create it. In your case stooping people from creating music is actually very simple. You teach them different time signatures/tempos and scales than the one that create magic.
How it works? Same as your regular education. If you are from western culture check if you can sing/remember/repeat some throat singers. If you are pop connoisseur can you enjoy/repeat/remember some 7/11 jazz in Japanese IN Sen scale?
Of course you can, with time, learn and understand them but you need to have access to it. Both knowledge and the new music.

As you mentioned totalitarian state you can easily imagine that those are forfeit from it's citizens so they "don't get" the music needed to cast spells.

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    $\begingroup$ IIRC the Wernicke area in the left brain half serves for speaking, and the one in the right brain half serves for singing and poetry. Disabling the right Wernicke area disallows singing. People with a damaged left Wernicke area can sing, but not speak. $\endgroup$ – mviereck Mar 11 at 22:52
  • $\begingroup$ Based on this and an above comment, I am thinking to go with a lobotomy-like procedure that destroys the right Wernicke area. I guess I need to research the surgical techniques that would make such a procedure possible, but it seems like a viable solution for my story. $\endgroup$ – 007th Bondsmith Mar 16 at 10:41

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