The truth about "tone-deafness"
Updated: Feb 5, 2021
Not being able to sing in tune does NOT mean that you are tone deaf. And it does NOT mean that you can’t learn to sing.
I can’t tell you how many people who have walked into my studio (or, these days, shown up on my computer screen) for their first lesson and started by saying, “I think I’m tone deaf. I think there is something wrong with my ear, or my voice.” For many of these people, it has been a source of lifelong embarrassment and even shame, and while they love music, they have grown to feel that singing is just not for them. They are the ones who LISTEN to the singers, but they don’t have a right to BE the singers. But the tug in the heart is still there… and when their bravery becomes bigger than their fear, they find their way to me.
True tone deafness, called “amusia,” is a neurological condition, affecting about 2-5% of the population, in which a person is unable to hear differences in pitch, and thus has difficulty matching pitch with their own voice. But if you have trouble matching pitch, it is much MORE likely that you just haven’t yet trained your ears to talk to your vocal chords.
Quick physiology lesson. When we hear a pitch, that sound goes in through the ear and is processed by the brain. Then the brain tells the vocal chords to find the correct position to reproduce that sound using various sets of muscles. Air from the lungs causes the vocal chords to vibrate and create a sound that matches the one we’ve heard.
There’s a lot going on here! (And that’s just the super simplified version! The full process of singing is complex, delicate, and, I think, so utterly beautiful and almost magical. But I digress.) Does this process happen more naturally for some than others? Sure. But what I really want you to know is that if there is a lack of coordination between the ear and vocal chords, this is an ABSOLUTELY trainable skill!
Are there people who come out of the womb being able to play basketball with the grace of a cheetah, while I can barely dribble the ball for 2 seconds without tripping over my own feet? Yes. But, if I really wanted to learn, and if I worked with a skilled coach and practiced on my own, could I learn to be a good basketball player? Yes! I could train my eyes and my hands to communicate with one another better, and over time I could learn to get the ball to go right where I want it to.
So why wouldn’t it be the same for singing?
For students who have challenges with matching pitch, I have found that there are always at least a few pitches, usually around the range of their speaking voice, that they are able sing accurately. So we start here. We practice matching pitch, really feeling the pitch resonate in the whole body and giving the ear, brain, and vocal chords time to communicate with one another to reproduce the sound accurately. As this coordination improves and confidence increases, we start to include other pitches, working our way out from this foundation. Muscle tone increases in the vocal chords, the ear becomes more attuned, and students find they can match a greater range of pitches! Then we can move on to working more directly with building power, strength, and flexibility in the voice.
Concurrently, we work with creating new experiences that rewrite the stories we hold about our voices. Whether it’s “I’m tone deaf,” “No one wants to listen to my voice,” or even, “My voice is beautiful but I’m only allowed to sing the way other people tell me to sing,” part of the work of learning to sing is to reclaim the authentic voice, free of judgment. Among the many tools we use to do this is the practice of improvised movement and vocalization, which allows us to experience the confidence and pure joy of singing and moving, to let go of perfectionism and striving, and to simply experience and appreciate the voice as it is, in this precious moment. As confidence and fearlessness build, many habitual patterns of holding tension in the face, throat, and vocal musculature, which are a cause of most vocal problems, begin to melt away to reveal the true voice that has just been waiting to be discovered.
With good, consistent lessons and regular practice, I’ve seen my students’ voices open up like flowers. They realize they can train this amazing instrument of the voice to do incredible things for them, not only to match pitch but to communicate their deepest emotions, connect with others, regulate their nervous systems, increase endorphins in the brain… and perhaps most importantly, to reclaim the voice as truly theirs. To rejoin the ranks of the singers, and to embrace that they have a story to tell with their voices and that the world wants and needs to hear it.
How about you? Are you ready to re-write your voice story? Click here to get started!