Judy Rodman - All Things Vocal Blog

Training & insights for stage and studio singers, speakers, vocal coaches and producers from professional vocal coach and author of "Power, Path & Performance" vocal training method. Download All Things Vocal podcast on your fav app!

Friday, July 3, 2009

Tone deaf? Try Target Practice

Someone asked me this week if I had any suggestions for training people who are considered "tone deaf". First we need to agree on a definition of what "tone deaf" is. I like this one from Webster's Dictionary-
"...relatively insensitive to differences in musical pitch."
Other names for chronic pitch problems are: "being pitchy", "not being able to sing in tune", and "not able to carry a tune in a bucket". These are varying degrees of "tone deafness", with different sets of limitations.
  • A session singer who is consistently 1/4 step sharp or flat can be considered too tone deaf to hire.
In this case, serious professional training should be sought out. The problem is usually one of breath control and/or a tight throat. This singer does hear the pitch but can't fine-tune their aim, hence the small but professionally limiting degree of tone-deafness. Pitch accuracy, for a session singer, has to be surgically precise, and pitch problems can short cut a studio vocal career.
  • A singer who can sing very well in tune in one key but can't find the melody if you change the key has a greater degree of tone deafness, and is prone to embarrassing themselves by singing a song in a completely different key than the band is playing. I've heard major stars do this. Really.
This singer needs to become aware of their pitch problems. Someone needs to speak up for their sake, because tone-deafness is limiting their options. They will always have to have a band that knows their limitations, will have to be very careful singing "on the spot" with strange players and will need to avoid singing acapella, when they may change pitch in the middle of the song (how many times have you heard someone do this with the Star Spangled Banner?!) Again, the solution is some serious target practice with someone who knows whether they are on pitch or not. This singer may also need help not straining or tightening their throats, as well as using good breath support, control and posture habits.
  • A beginning singer whose pitch-matching ability is akin to "pin the tail on the donkey" is considered someone who can't sing in tune. Or in short... who can't sing, period.
This singer will need to understand that it is indeed possible for a beginner to learn to sing in tune, but that it will take consistent practice over a period of time to educate the ear-brain-voice connections.

As a vocal coach I have successfully trained people who were "tone deaf"- even with some hearing loss and breathing limitations - to sing in tune! Unless there is true organic (physical) damage to the ear which eliminates the ability to process sound signals, anyone can learn to sing. Being tone deaf is what I would call a "lack of aural education". Somehow you missed a natural training of your hearing abilities to distinguish differences in pitch.

The question is-- are you are willing to dig in and do some consistent target practice? Simply play a note on a keyboard, guitar, or listen to a note sung by someone else, and try to match it. At first you will need to have someone present (a vocal coach would be great) to tell you if you are right. If you are wrong tell they need to be able to tell you you that you are too high (sharp) or too low (flat) so you know which way you need to go. Then move up to target practice with patterns of several notes in a row, then notes in strange intervals, etc. Practice daily if possible because the more you practice, the faster you will improve your ability to hear and "sing in tune" or "on pitch".

You also need to be able to apply good breath support and control, to keep your throat open and flexible, to know how to listen well to pitch in music tracks, and to eliminate subtle sources of inappropriate tension, in order to sing the most accurately.

For more help, here are some articles I've written on pitch problems:
Pitch Problems In The Recording Studio - 7 Solutions
Do You Have Pitch Problems As A Singer? 10 Solutions
For information on my vocal training classes and products, comment or reply to this post or contact me through my website.

Anyone else have experience with tone deafness? What helped? What didn't?

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  • At July 6, 2009 at 11:19 AM , Blogger LA said...

    Wow. I always thought people who were tone deaf couldn't learn to hear the correct pitch. Neat post--very interesting.

  • At July 6, 2009 at 11:34 PM , Blogger Judy Rodman said...

    Thanks much, Leigh Ann. People really can learn. I've witnessed it!

  • At February 19, 2011 at 10:55 PM , Blogger Unknown said...

    I have questions concerning a beautiful singer,(my husband) who has been in a band for the last 7 yrs. The last 2 not so great:( He's losing his hearing and can't seem to carry a tune anymore. The hearing aids are'nt doing anything for his confidence and now he won't sing at all is there help? Can you help? Sincerly Lisa F.

  • At February 20, 2011 at 8:15 PM , Blogger Unknown said...

    Snowflake... I am doing a 12 song project on a man with a hearing aid. We had to buy a special pair of headphones to accommodate his hearing aid device, but it worked great and we just finished his lead vocals... really going to be a wonderful project.

    I worked with an other singer who wears a hearing aid, and we just did an incredible live show (I sang backgrounds) at the House Of Blues in Vegas.

    And lastly, I work with a veteran producer who wears a hearing aid and produces tracks and vocals and mixes absolutely fine with it.

    Your husband just needs to get the right hearing aid, and then just really want to continue to sing. I believe with these two things in place, he can do it.

  • At July 2, 2014 at 3:12 PM , Blogger Unknown said...

    Yep everyone can learn to sing in tune if they take the time to train properly. Thanks for the article.

  • At July 2, 2014 at 3:43 PM , Blogger Judy Rodman said...

    You are most welcome, Amy... thx for taking the time to give the feedback!


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