Is the inability to sing in tune something people are born with, and can it be helped by taking singing lessons? The subject of tone-deafness has come up again of late, with two ABC Radio programs (on Life Matters and All In The Mind) suggesting that many people mistakenly assume they can’t sing and think they have this disorder when in fact they don’t.
It can be an all-too-familiar scenario: a child who loves singing might audition for a place in the school choir but is told they cannot sing in tune, and from there right into adulthood the doors close on their self-confidence. And confidence just may be the key. Statistics show that as many as 17% of adults self-identify as tone-deaf, while only 4% of the population actually suffer from this condition clinically – known as amusia, it is the inability to perceive fine-grained differences in pitch.
So somewhere along the way, a lot of people are incorrectly writing off their own ability to sing in tune. In Australia, according to these statistics, it could amount to 3 million individuals, which poses far larger implications for musical participation and enjoyment within the wider community than we might realise.
But is true tone-deafness treatable, and what difference do ear training and singing lessons make to those who really struggle to sing in tune? First, a distinction needs to be drawn between tone-deafness (amusia) and what we may regard as poor pitch singing, which is much more common. The Oxford Handbook of Music Psychology (2nd edition, 2016) says: “it is important to note that most of the individuals who self-identify as tone-deaf are not truly tone-deaf as identified by perceptual testing, but self-assess as being poor singers or lacking in musical exposure”.
Science on the subject suggests that the ability to sing in tune comes naturally to almost every child, but that direct participation in music is vital. A study of primary school children’s ability to sing in pitch found that “Students who indicated some history of private lessons … performed significantly better than those without” (Nichols, Journal of Research in Music Education, 2016).
Another recent study found that adults who identify as tone-deaf suffer from “poor musical self-concept” and as children “adults self-selected out of further participation” in music, even when their abilities in pitch perception and singing were “not significantly worse than the general population”. It concluded that “family music participation and positive attitudes toward music … can predict with 74% accuracy which students choose to continue in elective music” during their school years (Demorest, Kelley and Pfordresher, JRME, 2016).
Other research shows that asking subjects with non-musical backgrounds to sing at slower tempos enables them to pitch more accurately (Dalla Bella and Berkowska, 2009). Teachers auditioning children for school choirs might want to bear this in mind.
Further studies have identified deficits in hearing, poor control of the vocal tract, and poor memory as possible contributing factors to the inability to sing in tune (Scientific American, 2008). So it may not be lack of musical aptitude at all that blocks the progress of some students.
There’s hope for the few who are genuinely tone-deaf. Michael Spitzer, professor of music at the University of Liverpool, concedes he is tone-deaf: “I’m head of music at Liverpool, but I honestly can’t pitch a note when I try to sing,” he says cheerfully. “When I was at school, a choir conductor once told me that I had a “voice like a cracked saucepan”.
There is even a choir in Italy for the tone-deaf which focuses on listening skills.
For the rest, there must be many adults who self-identify as tone-deaf and who opted out of music as children but later regretted it. It is up to our educational system to prevent that from happening more often than it does.