Why 'tone deaf' is a lie


It’s the most frequent objection I hear when I tell people I’m a vocal coach. “You couldn’t help me” they say. “I can’t sing for toffee”, “I’ve been told I’m tone deaf” and “Even my kids tell me to shut up!”

If you’ve found yourself saying one of these things, or another variation, read on. I have some exciting news for you…

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You may have heard the saying; ‘if you can speak, you can sing’. You might have brushed it off or scoffed at the knowledge that you’re the exception to this rule. But as simple as it might seem - there is more truth to this than you realise. If you have a voice, and you use it to communicate, I can bet your voice moves in pitch (meaning, up and down). If you can hear when someone has a high voice and someone has a low voice, and if you recognise the tune to ‘Happy Birthday’; hello sunshine - you can sing!

Singing isn’t completely about the level of our ability at the vocal cords themselves. This comes into it eventually if you want to train and improve of course, but the most crucial part of singing is not in fact, the voice. It’s the ear. Even if you sing totally out of tune, out of key and all the wrong notes - you can learn to sing if you can hear that you’re off pitch. And guess what? Even this skill can be learnt. Ear training is a lot of what I teach in my voice studio, and even if you can’t always hear you’re off pitch, if you can hear it once you can also tune your ears to hear it again, and again.

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Once you can hear that you’re off pitch, with a little guidance and some practise you can train the voice to sync up to the ear and hit the notes you want to hit. That’s right - you can learn to sing in tune. It might take time, it most certainly will take a lot of patience, but I’ve seen it done before my very eyes with a number of students who come into my studio.

So what is tone deafness? Is it a myth? Well, no. But it is the most misunderstood term when it comes to the singing voice. Clinical tone deafness is actually a brain disorder called amusia, and it only affects around 4% of the population. It’s most commonly congenital, but can occur due to brain damage from an accident or trauma. Amusia refers to the absence of musical perception. In other words, sufferers of amusia can’t recognise pitch or tone at all, they struggle with rhythm, they don’t recognise if a note is higher or lower than another note, and any sort of musical sound confuses the circuits in the brain where the defect takes place.

If you recognise the tune of happy birthday, you’re not tone deaf.

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Busting this myth has become somewhat of a mission for me. I want to free people from the chains they put themselves in because someone once told them they couldn’t, or shouldn’t sing. It’s such a common story; we remember as a child a friend/school teacher/choir leader/family member told us to be quieter, to mime or to stop singing altogether. We take that on board and carry it into adulthood, believing we shouldn’t sing for everyone’s sake. If this is you - I see you. And more importantly, I hear you. I know you’ve got a voice under there, and you’re allowed to let it free. We make mistakes as we learn and that’s part of the process, so allow yourself to sound bad before you can start sounding good, be kinder to yourself, and for the love of all things - don’t tell your children they can’t sing.

Too many of us have robbed ourselves of the joys of singing because we believe we have to either be amazing, or quiet. Too many of us have carried a hurtful comment from childhood into adulthood and we no longer sing because of it. It’s time for that to change.

(Oh, and if your kids tell you to shut up I’ve got some news for you - so do mine! It has nothing to do with the quality of your voice, and everything to do with the fact you’re their parent…)

Do you recognise yourself in any of these comments? Was my example of a child being told to be quiet, actually your story? Have you been labelling yourself as tone deaf when in fact, you just struggle with pitch? I’d love to hear from you. Get in touch and tell me your story, and I’d love to help you sing again.


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Amy Box