So you think you’re tone deaf?
‘I can’t sing. I’m actually tone-deaf.’
This is a surprisingly common response when people find out that I’m a singing teacher. But of all the people in the world who get out of karaoke and carol singing with this line, very few actually are tone-deaf.
Tone-deafness, known as ‘amusia’ in its medical sense, is a cognitive issue linked to how the brain processes musical information. Usually sound is processed by the auditory cortex in the brain, before being sent on to the frontal and parietal cortices. This is a bit like when a document is proofread by one person for grammar, and then the corrected version is sent to another person to check for meaning. Amusia occurs when auditory information goes separately to these areas, but the two proofreaders don’t benefit from the insight of the other and so miss some errors.  This can show up as difficulty with recognizing pitch.
Pitch is how high or low a sound is. How does this work? When any sound is made we hear it because the instrument makes the air vibrate. Imagine the strings inside a piano – of varying lengths. When a piano key is pressed, a hammer hits a string and it vibrates the air around it – shorter strings vibrate faster (higher pitch), longer strings vibrate more slowly (lower pitch). This vibration hits your eardrum, which sends a message to your brain.
Not all pitch problems are tone-deafness. There are lots of reasons why someone might find pitch-matching difficult; lack of technique or experience, or perhaps growing up with little exposure to music. But in my experience the most common and most restrictive reason is lack of confidence. It only takes being told once or twice ‘that sounds awful!’ for a person to avoid it at all costs, creating negative associations with singing. Singing then becomes a psychological battle, inhibiting good breathing technique and tensing muscles in the vocal tract when they should be relaxed. This affects the sound produced, reinforcing the idea that they ‘can’t sing’, and so the vicious cycle continues.
In these cases, vocal training can allow the student to learn to correct their pitch through relaxation of their vocal instrument and through ear-training. This can be a revolutionary and exciting prospect for those who love to sing but have never been confident in their ability to hold a tune.
So, if you love to sing, but you’ve always thought you couldn’t carry a tune some vocal training could be the key – go on, try it!
For an interesting article on how tone-deafness is measured see:
Sloboda, J. Wise. K, and Peretz, I. (2005) ‘Quantifying Tone Deafness in the General Population’ Annals New York Academy of Sciences, 1060: 255–261, which can be accessed here
Top left: ‘Loud noise’ By Luis Miguel Bugallo Sánchez (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Middle right: Frequency sketches, by Victoria Punch