The Truth About Tone Deafness

The Truth About Tone Deafness

Jan 24, 2017

by George Bevan. Tone deafness (cognitive amusia) is rare. The much-quoted figure is that 4% of the population are affected, but I have spent the past six years working with literally hundreds of such individuals, and I can’t see where this figure comes from. In all of that time, I have found only three who really struggle to maintain a sense of pitch.

What I have found, however, is lots of people who are really bad singers! There are several factors that contribute to their sorry state, which I hope to unpack a little in this article.

The good news is that this is almost invariably an output rather than an input problem. In other words, the huge majority of people can hear the difference between two pitches, stating which one is higher or lower. It is the ability to reproduce an accurate pitch that eludes them.

For the person who claims to be tone deaf, this gives immediate hope. Fact: you can hear the difference between these notes, so you are not tone deaf! Encouraged: we can now move on to consider why they might be struggling to reproduce that pitch vocally.

Critical listening

In most cases, the student simply doesn’t realise that they need to engage in the process of listening! I sing a note, and the student sings back a note which is way off target. Perhaps not so surprising if they didn’t actually take aim. We need to engage them in the listening process.

So, let’s go back to the original test above. I play a low note on the piano, and then a really high one, and ask which one is higher. The second one, obviously! Now I play two more notes, considerably closer together, and straight away I can see that my pupil is now listening much more carefully. When I play notes just a tone or even a semitone apart, they are concentrating hard, but I am yet to find anyone who still can’t succeed in this task.

And now we return to singing. I sing my note, and they sing theirs, and it is still off target. “Was your note higher or lower than mine?” Lower. Their answer is confident: our short critical listening exercise has switched their ears on.

“Ok, so here is my note again. Listen carefully. And now sing.” Nine times out of ten — and I’ve thought very carefully about that proportion — they sing back my note. Not always perfectly in tune, but pretty close. And they know. The excitement, for teacher and pupil, is tangible and I never tire of the thrill of this moment.

Energy

Singing is not the same as speaking. Both have pitch and a range of inflections, but singing much more so. I find that many of those who claim not to be able to sing just don’t realise that it requires energy to do so.

The best place to begin to address this is towards the bottom of their vocal range. Ask your student to sing any note they like, but one which is quite low and takes very little effort to produce — in fact, much the same energy as for speaking. I call this their ‘lazy voice.’ Now that they are listening critically, it is also relatively easy to re-find this note each time they try. “You’re a B flat man, let’s sing that B flat again.” In some respects this is a calibration exercise; we are finding a baseline constant which we can refer back to again and again.

Our student should hopefully now be able to sing a step higher or lower than ‘their’ note, and we can begin to extend their vocal range. But if you now sing that note an octave higher, it should be immediately apparent that it requires a very different sort of energy!

The chances are that a non-singer has rarely ventured out of the low energy, lazy voice range. I tend to exaggerate, throw a few arms around to make the point that singing is a whole body exercise. There is no hurry for them to explore a higher range of notes; for someone who until now thought they were tone deaf, it is a huge encouragement to know that they can consistently sing back a single, lazy voice note! And there is often still one more major hurdle to overcome….

Confidence

One short article isn’t going to cover everything, and this is a big topic.

The chances are that our non-singer has had their confidence knocked. They’ve probably been told that they can’t sing, or even not to sing; worse still, they may then have spent many years not singing, reinforcing in their own minds their inadequacies as a singer. I have encountered some people who actually can’t bring themselves to vocalise at all, such is the trauma that they have suffered. In my mind, it’s an indisputable fact: our singing voice is the most intimate part of us.

What I tend to find is that, having got this far with a pupil, I have gained enough of their trust for them to know that this is a journey worth continuing. The ‘lesson’ that this article outlines usually takes less than 10 minutes, and in this time our student will have discovered that they are not tone deaf after all. In fact, they have already managed to sing back a small range of notes more or less accurately. They might not yet be confident, but they are certainly encouraged!

Here’s the best bit. With a little practice and a lot more encouragement, skills develop. Critical listening becomes habit; our student is able to pitch reliably in an expanding vocal range; their confidence grows. But not just confidence in their singing. Time and time again I have seen shy, nervous people, children and adults alike, transformed by the experience of learning to sing.

George Bevan is director of music at Monkton Senior School near Bath, UK.