I sing out of tune – am I really tone-deaf?

Occasionally, vocal coaches and singing teachers come across students who others (or even themselves!) have referred to as ‘tone-deaf’. How do we deal with this?

First of all: There is such a sing as amusia (the inability to recognise, process and distinguish pitch), but it is rare – depending on study, the percentage hovers well below 5% of the population. If someone has trouble producing the right pitch, I usually never assume they belong to this group, and to be honest – I have never met a student who would really fall into this group. It is far more common that their musical ear is underdeveloped, or that habitual tensions prevent the student from singing in tune.

The former group will sometimes be unsure what is the right note to produce, but they can still recognise that one note you play or sing is different from the next one, and they will usually even be aware of the fact whether it is higher or lower, albeit sometimes with a bit of prodding in the right direction. These people need to develop their aural skills. This is not a negative thing: If you grew up in a family that hardly listens to music, nobody ever sang to or with you, you don’t play any instruments, and you didn’t have any musical education at school – how are you supposed to develop perfect aural awareness? It is, at least partly, an acquired skill. The latter group will usually straightaway go: “Oh my goodness, that was rubbish and so out of tune!” when they hit a wrong note. There’s obviously nothing wrong with their musical ear, because they are fully aware of the fact they sing out of tune (out of tune is relative by the way: it can just be a tiny fraction, or it can be quite a big interval).

I have heard all sorts of advice to solve these problems. One is to use software (SingAndSee is just one of them). And whilst I think that visual feedback can indeed be a good thing for some students and is a great training tool in a modern singing studio (I use it myself with some students), I also believe that it is very counterproductive for others. It makes them even more tense, because they will start to become fixated on “having to sing right”, and each time they are just a tiny amount off the mark, they will get annoyed and even more tense. Not always a way to solve the problem in my opinion.

There is no surefire way to deal with pitch problems, because it hugely depends on the reason for the individual’s problems. What each approach has in common though is trying to take the stress off the student – it doesn’t help if we repeatedly bang out the same note on the piano, consistently pointing out that it was ‘wrong’. Sometimes it can even be good to move away from the piano/backing track completely, because a lot of students find it easier to tune into another voice than to sing along with an instrument.

Depending on how severe the problem is, there are different things we can try. The easiest one if pitch problems are quite severe is to just let the student try to match your voice (always a bit trickier when we are teaching the opposite sex, but nonetheless possible). It is also VERY important that we don’t leave the range the student can comfortably match, even if it is just a few notes at the start. A lot of students (and teachers!) are much too ambitious when it comes to selecting repertoire. The student’s favourite song is not necessarily the best choice – sometimes it has to be the ‘practice song’ they at first don’t feel so enthusiastic about. Never lose the fun though – I still let them sing the repertoire they like, it is a huge motivational tool. However, it is the teacher’s responsibility to tweak these songs – maybe by transposing them, maybe by altering the melody to make it suitable for the student – don’t be lazy about it, it’s your job!

Another very important thing is to develop the student’s musical ear during vocal training sessions. A lot of students come into a singing lesson thinking that they will only sing their favourite songs. If that’s all you want, you are probably better off going to a karaoke bar at the weekend. Learning to sing means developing both your voice and your musicianship. No other instrumentalist would ever question this fact (piano lessons for instance) – only singers sometimes seem to think it is different with voice. It isn’t if you are serious about it. Not all students have problems in this area, and if they don’t, great. If they do however, they need to work on it.

Aural training, for instance recognising musical intervals, being able to feel a steady pulse, distinguishing dynamics etc, should have a place in every singing lesson – especially with the ones who struggle with a slightly underdeveloped musical ear.

All aural awareness aside: From experience, I would say that the majority of pitching problems are down to tension, wrong support levels and wrong adjustments of the vocal apparatus. Again, there is no ‘one fits all’-approach for this, because it depends on the student: Some sing with too much vocal mass for the desired sound. Others fail to bring up enough support. Another student is maybe habitually tense, and the next one over-blows, or suffers from not enough vocal fold adduction.

Generally speaking, lack of preparation is a massive problem in singing off pitch. This can involve basically every part of your body required for singing:

  • Ears – not listening (that doesn’t mean lacking the ability, but rather being impatient or sloppy), and not checking back to adjust
  • Torso – lacking or too much support, postural alignment issues
  • Neck (and shoulders) – wrong head/neck alignment, too much tension, or lacking muscle tone (the muscular involvement that actually IS necessary)
  • Larynx – reasons can be manifold, from unskilled cartilage adjustment to too much or too little vocal fold adduction
  • Pharynx – pharyngeal tightness or over-widening, lacking soft palate control, tongue root pressure etc.

It is important for every vocal coach to find out what the cause of the individual singer’s lacking pitch control is. Sometimes it is blatantly obvious, sometimes it requires a bit more time to get to the root of the problem. I honestly believe though that with enough patience, pitch problems can be solved. It might be that there are tone-deaf people out there – I haven’t met a single one yet.

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© Petra Raspel 2011

7 Comments

  1. Nice post, Petra. There are so many people who really believe that they are tone deaf. I think they like to feel special because they are truly hopeless cases!

    Ironically, it’s those people who KNOW that they sing out of tune who can most easily be helped because they can clearly tell when they’re off pitch.

    I’ve found that it’s important to choose the right thing for each singer to pitch against. It could be an instrument or another voice. Some people can pitch against a violin, but not a piano. Some people can pitch against one person, but not another.

    I often start by getting the singer with pitch problems to sing then I match to them rather than the other way round. After they’ve got used to that, then we switch.

    I have a friend who can sing perfectly in tune when singing solo, but is always slightly out when singing with others. It turns out that she freaks when she fits in exactly with the other singers because she feels that she ‘disappears’. So she has to sing slightly out of tune in order to be able to hear herself properly.

    Chris

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    1. Thanks for your comment, Chris! I sometimes also use the trick you describe (matching the student’s voice instead of the other way round). It is really a massive subject, and I believe that too many students and teachers give up on it far too quickly. It’s of course fair of teachers to decide they only want to work with more advanced singers, but then please, please don’t tell the student they are “beyond hope”, especially not if you just don’t have strategies to help them!
      It still happens, and it does so much damage…

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  2. I am approaching a age that limits my ability to do things I use to do. I like to sing but I don’t think I can hear the notes correctly. My bucket list includes singing at my church, but I am afraid I can not carry the proper notes. What can I do?

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    1. Hi Julia,

      First of all, you could get your hearing checked, just to make sure everything is okay (most people with hearing problems are still able to sing in tune if they seek out medical help/wear hearing aids, for example).

      Other than that, seek out the help of an experienced singing teacher. They can help with building your aural skills, and also to remove tension that prevents people from singing in tune (it isn’t always a hearing issue – very often, singing out of tune is down to not adjusting our instrument [the voice] right).

      I wish you the best of luck. If I can be of further assistance, please get in touch.

      Like

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