Updated: Jun 3, 2020
In my many years as a vocal instructor, I occasionally ran across students who declared that they were unable to perceive the difference between one music note and another, let alone reproduce it by singing. In other words, they were afflicted with congenital amusia or as we say, tone deafness. So what's the definition of tone-deaf, and how can it be cured or at least improved?
Well, the official definition is:"When somebody is tone-deaf, they can't tell notes apart. They have poor pitch discrimination, so they don't know when notes are right or wrong, and will make frequent mistakes if they try to sing or play an instrument."
Some people do not realize that they are tone-deaf and sing anyway, much to the horror of people in the same room! They sing away, obviously thinking that they are reproducing the correct melody notes but are often wildly off pitch.I had an uncle with this affliction but we didn't have the heart to tell him to stop! Thus, we are faced with a tricky dilemma. On the one hand we admire their boldness and tenacity, but on the other hand, we have a distinct desire to escape as quickly as possible.
Can I Be Tested?
The good news is that yes, indeed you can. At the end of this post I will give you a link to a testing website that will let you know, after you have taken the test, whether or not you are actually tone-deaf. Many people tend to confuse being tone-deaf and being hearing impaired. In fact, they are different in many ways. We've already shown the definition of tone-deaf and you can see that being deaf or hearing impaired is a whole different ballgame.Your hearing may
Your hearing may be impaired but you may still be able to sing in tune and differentiate between one note and another. The downside however, is that when people are impaired, they tend to sing and talk louder so that they can hear themselves better, which can be almost as scary as being tone-deaf, both for the listener and anyone else nearby. Is one preferable to the other?
Personally, as a musician and former teacher, if I had to choose, I would always pick hearing impaired over tone deafness for obvious reasons. I cannot envisage a life without being able to sing or play a melody correctly or reproduce any tone accurately. Also, today's amazing hearing aid technology considerably lessens the disability of deafness and all the inconvenience and social stigmas attached to it.
Can I Be Cured?
A good question. Since only about 4% of the population actually suffers from congenital tone deafness, it leads me to believe that many people are in fact, not tone-deaf but just lacking in the correct training and exposure to necessary musical elements, such as melody, rhythm and sound in general.
A few years ago I was approached by a man who, while he firmly believed that he was tone-deaf, decided to seek out the advice of a professional vocal instructor (me), who could either confirm or refute his belief. I happily consented to participate in his self-motivated experiment for one year to see what would happen.
Initially, he could only sing one note. In other words, whatever note I sang or played on the piano, would result in the same monotone. He could certainly tell when a note was higher or lower, softer or louder, played or sung, and so from this I deduced that he wasn't hearing impaired. I started to give him some exercises that were tailored to his situation, and after the first couple of months, surprisingly perhaps, he could pick out two notes, and sing them to command about 90% of the time.
Over the following 6 months or so, he diligently worked on various exercises that I gave him and started to increase his 'range' to three and then four notes and then to five and six notes. His confidence level, which had been at zero, then began to soar, much to my joy and amazement, and by the end of the year, could sing a full octave (eight notes) about 95% of the time. He was now ready to try a simple folk song, which he did with enthusiasm and, while it could never be described as a concert performance, it was, without a doubt, a highlight of his life......and his long suffering teacher!
The Light At The Tunnel's End
Needless to say, this was a great and wonderful experience for both of us, and more importantly, helped both of us. Instead of trying to improve his tone deafness by giving him exercises and hoping for the best as many teachers do, I worked from his voice and built his range from the note that he already had. He gained confidence from knowing that he was not a hopeless singer after all, and eventually could learn simple songs to sing whenever he wished.
From my viewpoint, I came to the inescapable conclusion that, while tone deafness cannot be cured, it has varying degrees of acuteness, and, in some cases, with patience, hard work and the right kind of guidance, can be improved significantly. This in turn can bring unexpected pleasure to the lives of those who suffer from this disability, and to all around them.
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