Is it True That Anyone Can Sing? : The Difference Between Amusia and Self Proclaimed Tone-Deafness

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Aubrey Lauren
Instructor
Is it True That Anyone Can Sing? : The Difference Between Amusia and Self Proclaimed Tone-Deafness

As a voice teacher, if I had a dollar for every time I heard this sentence:

"I've always wanted to sing, but I am tone-deaf!"

...I would be able to pack up and retire now.

This sentence, however, also never ceases to intrigues me.

A not-so-well-known fact is that tone-deafness (clinically known as "Amusia") is a legitimate medical condition in which the sufferer experiences a dissociation from one or a combination of sonic qualities such as rhythm, intonation and emotional connotation. If you're interested in a more in-depth description of this condition, click here to go to the Journal of Neuroscience and read more!

Additionally, this kind of impairment often makes it hard for those with Amusia to both enjoy and appreciate music as a whole. That being said, after a short conversation with someone who feels that they are unable to sing, it quickly becomes clear that the problem is rarely this congenital or acquired musical disorder, but rather something a little bit different.

First off, singing is HARD. Some people, admittedly, might be born with a better understanding of their own musculature and be able to translate that into musical ability, but singing is not what our voice is specifically designed to do. How many times do you speak using your entire range-highest to lowest-in the middle of a meeting? Do you ever practice activating your abdominals and diaphragm to maximize your rhythmic control or lung capacity? How many times do you actively think about how your breath is interacting with your voice to create a sound? I would wager the answer would be "almost never", and that's completely okay.

Let's take a football player, for example.

The average human has two legs, just like the average FIFA star. Does that mean that every person is or could be a FIFA star? Not necessarily, but that's ok. They can still learn the basics of football and have fun playing the game. Some people might be naturally better at controlling a ball and kicking goals, but at least most people can get a handle on the fundamentals with the help of a coach and a strong desire to learn.

It's still good fun whether you play on a professional pitch, or at your local park.

Just like learning how to play football and training your body to make the best shot for goal that it can, you must train the delicate muscles in your throat to sing the song you want to perform for your company's karaoke party or best friend's wedding. It's not that older dogs cannot learn new tricks, but that they will not. When you have spent your entire life honing the skills you have a knack for, it can be extremely jarring to face the prospects of failure once again. As children, we know very little of the world and ourselves, so we try and consequently fail more often. As we age, we inherently drift towards things we enjoy, and avoid blatant challenges. We have forgotten that failure goes hand in hand with success as we attempt something truly out of our wheelhouse.

Like learning any new skill, it takes time, patience and a little guidance. To make a long story short, it's possible to learn how to sing at any age, even when you've spent your entire life thinking that you cannot. You just have to remember that Rome was not built in a day, and nor was a voice.

Leah Kruszewski
ModeratorInstructor

Hi Aubrey, I really enjoyed reading this.  Thanks for sharing the info on *true* tone deafness versus simply not realizing that singing well takes a lot of hard work and training.  I also like what you say about learning new skills later in life.  I teach a lot of adult students, and I think many of them can relate to what you said. It's not that things really are harder later in life - it's just that we've become so used to our patterns and using our well-honed skills that we've forgotten what it's like to do something truly new and different.   

I also enjoyed your other recent posts, this one just spoke to me the most.  

Thanks for sharing!
Leah

Aubrey Lauren
Instructor

Hi Leah! It's nice to cyber-meet you. Thanks for your kind comment---and I totally agree that the patterns in life, although comforting, can come back to bite us when it comes to stepping out into the unknown. When I was studying to become an opera singer, I was surrounded by a lot of wonderful musicians who had started fostering their talents at a young age and I fell into the common trap of believing that because I had not been singing since the age of 5, that I would never be able to compete with my colleagues. Boy was I wrong! I willingly worked hard because I wanted it and could better realize my goals for the long term. I find a lot of my adult students can learn as fast (if not faster) than my younger students because they both understand and value the effects of practice. Wisdom as a result of age brings us a better grasp of what self-discipline can do, while simultaneously making us fear failure. A troublesome conundrum for sure!

Zach Gunn
Instructor

Hi there! I'm new to the forums here, and have an anecdote to chime in with! My partner may experience some degree of Amusia, but largely in a way that I haven't heard of anywhere else. Their ears are incredible sensitive to high pitch ranges (dog whistles and "mosquito tone" ringtones drive them up a wall), and we've found that this often results in them hearing the harmonics of any given pitch stronger than they hear the fundamental. Often, they'll start singing along to the radio, and with no related musical training, sing a killer harmony! Of course , there are plenty of times the correlation to the fundamental isn't strong enough, and their "harmony" (which they hear as the melody) will be out of key, more characteristic of "tone deafness," but I think it's really neat how they have this incredible harmony-finding skill without prior work to develop it.

Aubrey Lauren
Instructor

Hi Zach! Nice to cyber-meet you and welcome to the Forum? 

I personally love teaching people who come to me with some degree of difficulty with pitch recognition. What your partner seems like they have is something I believe I've seen quite a few times in people who are self-proclaimed tone deaf, and you are correct, they often are hearing the overtones and incorrectly using them to anchor themselves sonically. It's possible to retrain the ear to search for and correctly lock onto the fundamental with a bit of patience and guidance! One of my students is a 50 y/o lawyer who had never held a tune properly in his life. We got through the basics and when he started singing to a new song, he often would still get tricked by his ears into following along with the overtones. It takes a bit of discipline, but if you do a sliding technique coupled with a few other exercises, you can recalibrate how your ears hear pitch ? Of course, never having worked with your partner, I cannot day for certain that this would result in the same outcome for my other students, but it's certainly a legitimate option for them, should they ever want to try it!

Leah Kruszewski
ModeratorInstructor

Hi Zach and Aubrey, this is a really fascinating topic.  I had no idea that some people hear overtones so prominently and can actually confuse them for the fundamental pitch.  What an interesting problem that could actually turn into a strength with a little guidance and patience.  Thanks for sharing!

Aubrey Lauren
Instructor

Yeah! When I first started teaching, I had no idea that it was so easy for certain ears to pick up on those overtones (when I initially struggled with that as a young artist, myself) so I had to learn how to help guide students towards the fundamental. The other thing I have seen is very competent students experiencing something similar but are lead astray by timbre. For example, when a singer is singing in a calm way, but suddenly starts screaming, students will hear a larger interval and often overshoot the melody due to the change in color, rather than the actual pitch. So interesting!

Zach Gunn
Instructor

Ooh, yes! Timbre often gets in my partner's way as well. The same pitch from different voices or instruments will usually register as different notes. It's so neat how different (and similar) brains can be!

Warner Iveris
Instructor

Hi Aubrey, 

I incorporate a lot of singing into learning guitar and it's almost always fine. A lot of times young kids seem to have a little trouble locking onto pitch, but it usually resolves itself over time. However, there was one student I had that really couldn't match pitch and I'm wondering if he was hearing overtones. I didn't know that overtones could confuse people so much. In the future, if I get a student like that, I'll send them your way!

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