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I'm tone deaf: Can I learn to sing in tune?

The short answer: Yes, probably!

The long answer: Read on to find out!


Why do some people have difficulty with pitch, while others do not?

There are several possible factors which can result in a person having difficulty recognising and reproducing pitch (how high or low a note is). Some of these (in no particular order) include:

  • Exposure - A lack of experience/exposure to music and singing in childhood (particularly the early years) can result in an underdeveloped natural sense of pitch.

  • Vocal technique - several technical issues can result in pitch difficulties. For example: uncontrolled breath flow, inefficient phoneme (letter sound) production, and incorrect vocal fold usage.

  • Genetics - some traits are on a continuum (such as height) or are additive (a combination of multiple genes), rather than being dominant/recessive. Tone deafness is one such trait. For this reason, true "amusicality" is extremely rare.

  • Psychological - for many people, if they have had a traumatic experience related to singing/the use of their voice, this results in psychological blockages and a lack of confidence in their abilities. General unrelated traumatic experiences can also have a detrimental effect on the voice. Many people who consider themselves to be tone deaf believe that this is not something they can ever change, and even some music/singing teachers do not believe that one can learn to sing in tune. Of course, some people also believe they are the world's greatest singers, while singing wildly out of tune!

  • Mental/neurological - Some people have difficulty processing differences between internal/external sounds (as what we hear when we produce sound is not the same as what we hear when we receive sound). Some people also find it difficult to sing in different keys (this is often related to technique as well as mental understanding of/processing of pitch and tonality (the "home" of the pitches in a musical work/section of music)). Some neurodivergant conditions can also affect understanding of pitch.

  • Medical - some medical conditions (for example, hearing conditions or conditions related to the vocal apparatus (vocal folds, etc.)) can cause difficulty with pitch.

Most of these issues can be corrected or improved with the right assistance!


What is perfect pitch?

"Perfect pitch", also known as "absolute pitch", means that you can identify or produce a specific pitch without any point of reference. "Relative pitch" means that you can identify or produce a pitch when you have a point of reference (for example, another pitch in the same musical key).


How can I improve my sense of pitch?

Firstly, although there are things you can do alone to improve your own sense of pitch, it is much better to work with an experienced singing teacher. A teacher can not only guide you as you learn, but will also serve as another pair of ears to tell you whether your pitch is accurate or not. They can also sing with you, either the same pitches or different, related "harmony" pitches, to help you to experience the sensations which come with matching vocal sounds.

Some things I do when teaching with a focus on improving pitch:

  • I prefer to work a capella until the student is confident singing alone and in tune. Once they achieve this, they can work with backing tracks/accompanying instruments. Of course, singing is always a work in progress, but they should have reached a point where they no longer require the assistance of a teacher to sing most phrases in tune.

  • Begin with exercises and songs in a comfortable key and which use a small range of pitches and intervals (gaps between pitches). Nursery rhymes and simple folk songs are good to start with! As the student progresses, increase the variety of pitches/intervals/tonalities/music styles they encounter.

  • Depending on stage of pitch sense development: I sing with the student in unison, I sing a note or phrase and the student repeats it back, I give the starting pitch and the student sings the phrase alone, I sing in harmony with the student on a pitch/phrase... progressively I remove my voice from the equation!

  • Break down pitches/intervals/phrases into small units to work on technical aspects. Like with any voice student, specific technical issues vary, so this is tailored to the student's needs.

  • Discuss and work together to overcome specific personal challenges, such as psychological barriers or special needs, and recommending specialists (for example, an ENT doctor or therapist) where required.

It is important to remember that developing one's sense of pitch can be a slow process, so both teacher and student need to be prepared for this. Practicing alone can be difficult at first for the student, so exercises related to breath, phonation, diction, etc, rather than actual singing, can be useful until the student can reliably assess and adjust their pitch.


Work with me

If you are not in Paris and have access to a local singing teacher who can help you to develop your sense of pitch and singing skills in a healthy way, in-person lessons are best.

Interested in working with me? Tell me a little bit about yourself, your singing experiences and challenges, and your location and availability. We can then organise a first lesson. I look forward to hearing from you!

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