Are you really? It is a possibility, especially if you have brain damage (genetic or otherwise), but more than likely you just have an untrained skill. Just like riding a bike, it’s not something any of us are born doing, but most of us can learn.
The Test. The big clue to test if you really are tone deaf is to find out if you can hear the difference between sounds. Can you tell if one sound is higher than another? Lower than another? The same? Here is an online test you can take for free, but I want to warn you ahead of time that this is set up like a “test.” If you have test anxiety, your results might not be accurate. You will be given two different sounds and need to pick if they are the same or different. The best way to approach the test is with curiosity. Allow yourself to play around with the sounds as you hear them. Even if you “can’t sing,” find out what happens if you hum along or use your hand to help you approximate the visualization of the highness and lowness of each sound. Give yourself as much time as you need, and play the pitches as many times as you need to feel more comfortable.
Now What? Once you determine that you aren’t truly tone deaf, the next step is to starting noticing sounds. Sounds are all around us all of the time, but probably very early in life our brain decided it had spent enough time paying careful attention to them and set a sort of auto-pilot program so that we don’t really notice the differences unless they signify an emergency or warning of some sort. If you are wanting to develop your skill as a singer, the first step is to start noticing the sounds around you… which are high, low, the same?
Big Step with Simple Rules. The next big step to developing your abilities has to do with the Auditory Feedback Loop. Sounds impressive, doesn’t it? It is! We need to always keep in mind the power of this idea because the steps are deceivingly simple. Most of the time our brain is quick to dismiss them and we lose the advantage that they offer to get better, fast.
Auditory Feedback Loop
- Listen to the sound you want to reproduce.
- Imagine yourself making the sound. How will it feel coming out of your mouth? What will you notice? (This crucial step is often skipped by students- don’t let it be you! By imagining the sound your body can “preset” all of the moving parts in your vocal instrument so that when air moves through your vocal folds everything is where it needs to be.)
- Make the sound.
- Evaluate— how did your sound compare with the original? Was it high, low, or the same? When you made any adjustments needed were they large or small changes?
At first, you’ll have the best results by giving yourself a lot of time to complete each step. I promise you your brain will fight against this very quickly. “But this is too easy!” Beware of this temptation creeping in… it will derail your efforts faster than anything else. If you want to really hone your skills, record yourself hearing the pitch and then reproducing it. When you listen to or watch the recording you’ll have a more objective perspective of how closely you match the sound with your voice.
If you would love to sing, but have always been told you can’t match pitch, are tone deaf, or just shouldn’t try, this is the best place to start. I have helped numerous students who come to me saying the very same things and they ALL have improved as singers. With playfulness and curiosity in your practicing, you can, too!