Tone deafness – not a lack of talent

As a musician or a music lover, you have probably had people tell you: “Oh, how nice for you to be able to play an instrument or sing. I myself am absolutely tone deaf!” But is this statement usually true? If someone is “suffering” from tone deafness, meaning they really can’t distinguish the right pitch, how on earth do they know it?

Tone deafness, or amusia, can be acquired if the brain is damaged. You can also be born with it. Only about 4% of the world’s population is born tone deaf. This makes it highly unlikely that everyone calling themselves tone deaf is actually telling the truth.

Oftentimes, when people blame their bad singing voice or inability to play an instrument on tone deafness, it is simply because they haven’t had any musical training.

They haven’t tried to learn an instrument, so they don’t know how to play. They rarely sing, so they don’t have very good control of their voice, because there is no muscle memory to consult. And there are other reasons one might sing badly.

Tone deafness is usually not only the inability to hear if a note is sour, or singing in tune. Rather, tone deaf people can find it impossible to recognize a melody. They also often dislike listening to music or even find it to be noisy. If you can sing back a melody even vaguely, you are not tone deaf.

But why do some people suffer from amusia? It is definitely not because they lack talent. The reason may very well be a genetic defect. In other words, it’s not really something you can do anything about.

It’s not only when it comes to music that tone deafness can become a problem. It’s also common in languages such as Chinese, where the pitch you use for a certain word determines its meaning. The difficulty to hear the difference between these words means that it can be harder for tone deaf people to learn to speak and understand a language.

A common question that all singing teachers get from time to time is: Can everyone learn to sing?

Bearing what we just discussed in mind, what is the answer to this question? Logic says that the great majority can learn to sing, but there are a few poor people who will never be able to do it. They just can’t hear what they are supposed to. Still, there are extremely few who claim to be tone deaf who actually can’t hear the difference between two different notes.

And yet, as a singing teacher, I have personally encountered it. There was a nine-year-old student of mine that could never hit a single note. I could ask her to sing a specific note, play it on the piano and sing it along, and she would be totally off. After many lessons, I suggested that she play the piano instead, since her singing wasn’t improving at all. She learned to play a few easy pieces on the piano but had trouble remembering what note to start on. One little tune that starts in C and is in C major could be moved around to pretty much any note, and she would never hear that something was wrong, even though it sounded different every time she played it.

So yes, tone deafness exists. But in all my years as a musician and a music teacher, I have only ever encountered it once.

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