Am I Tone Deaf

Am I Tone Deaf? The Truth Behind the Misconception

Am I Tone Deaf

Do you think you’re “tone deaf” and destined to be a bad singer for the rest of your life? Think again! Read on as voice teacher Elaina R. dispels the myth behind tone deafness…


Am I tone deaf? An alarming number of people ask themselves this question. But the truth is, tone deafness is a pretty rare phenomenon. Don’t give yourself up as a lost cause simply because you can’t carry a tune. Instead, learn what tone deafness is – and what common issues could be causing your pitch problems.

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What Does “Tone Deaf” Mean?

For the tone deaf, hearing the pitch and processing it in the brain is impossible. Tone deaf people cannot distinguish between musical pitches because that is the way their brains work. There is even a medical term for this condition: amusia.

According to scientists, congenital amusia (amusia not caused by brain injury) only affects 4% of people. So if you are having trouble singing in tune, it probably isn’t because you are tone deaf; it’s because you haven’t figured out the complex coordination between the brain, vocal cords, and breath that leads to pitch accuracy. In my years of teaching, I have met many students who have difficulty singing in tune, but not a single one of them was tone deaf!

Are you still asking yourself, Am I tone deaf? Take this free tone deaf test from the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders to find out. Unfortunately there is no known cure for amusia (it’s just the way your brain is), so if you truly are tone deaf, singing probably isn’t the best choice for you. However, you can still enjoy playing a different instrument, such as drums.

So, I’m Not Tone Deaf. Why Can’t I Match Pitch?

Singing a pitch is a complicated coordination between the brain, the vocal cords, and the breath. First, the singer hears the pitch. Then, the singer must adjust their vocal cords so that they are just the right thickness to replicate the pitch. Finally, the singer uses their breath to make their vocal cords vibrate, producing the pitch.

Failure on any one of these three fronts can make a singer sing out of tune. For most people, the second step — getting the vocal cords to just the right position to sing a particular pitch — is the hardest. Even people with perfect pitch sometimes sing out of tune for this very reason!

The Many Faces of Pitch Problems

I think of pitch-matching ability in stages. Some people start off at Stage 1, while others naturally start at Stage 4. Wherever you start, with the right kind of practice, you can progress through the stages until you make it to Stage 4.

Stage 1: Usher

I have no idea how to match pitch. I am always way, way off.

With students like this, I usually start with simple free vocalization, having the student slide up and down their range and think about how they are making the changes that lead to the pitch going up or down. Then, I introduce pitch-matching exercises in a limited range, using an app like Pitch Analyzer to gauge accuracy. The more you practice matching pitch, the faster you will get better, so aim for five to 10 minutes per day.

Stage 2: Stagehand

I can match most pitches, but I sometimes sing off-key.

Singers at Stage 2 still need to practice matching pitch every day. Unlike Stage 1 singers, though, you can start stringing notes together, practicing matching three- or four-pitch sequences rather than single notes. You should also practice large intervals of an octave or more (large intervals tend to be more disorienting).

Stage 3: Background Singer

I sometimes sing a little flat or sharp.

Stage 3 singers have usually mastered the coordination between the brain and the vocal cords. For these singers, the problem is vocal technique. A singer who is often flat, for instance, may need to bolster their breath support or raise their facial resonators more. A singer who is often sharp may be using too much energy or air to fuel their sound.

Stage 4: Diva

Me, sing out of tune? Puh-lease!

Whether by nature or nurture, Stage 4 singers are deadly accurate. Their brain, vocal cords, and singing technique work in tandem to produce spot-on pitches. The challenge for Stage 4 singers is to stay in tune during difficult moving passages or vocal extremes.

Here’s a recap:

4 Singing Exercises to Improve Your Pitch

Am I Tone Deaf? No!

If you are not one of the 4% of people who is truly tone deaf, you can learn to sing accurately. I have never had a student whose pitch accuracy has not improved with time. Just find a good singing instructor, practice every day, and slowly but surely, you will learn to sing in tune.

Elaina RPost Author: Elaina R.
Elaina R. teaches opera voice and singing in Ann Arbor, MI, as well as through online lessons. She is currently working on a Master of Music at the University of Michigan, and she has a B.M. from the University of Southern California. Learn more about Elaina here! 

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