Can You Learn to Sing if You’re Tone Deaf?

Can you learn to sing if you're tone deaf? Have you ever described yourself as tone deaf or do you know someone who does? Do you joke that you can’t carry a tune? Are you curious about how someone can fix pitch problems or learn to sing in tune?

Am I tone deaf?

Let’s get straight to the facts. According to scientific research, only about 3 – 4% of the population are genuinely tone deaf. That is – they suffer from a rare condition called amusia. Caused by abnormalities in the brain, amusia makes people unable to hear or reproduce musical pitch.

That means the remaining 96% of us are all fairly similar in our ability to judge whether something is in or out of tune. Despite the facts, you might not be so confident of your pitch “Tone deaf” is a term people like to throw around, usually when they feel embarrassed, awkward or have difficulty singing. If you’ve decided you want to improve your sense of pitch and ability to sing in tune, how do you go about it?

In the YouTube video above, I give you seven tips for overcoming pitch problems, singing shyness, and conquering tone deafness. To make this video extra-special and personal, I’m will show you those tips at work in a real singer. In this video, you will meet Leon, who in just 8 weeks, was able to dramatically improve his sense of pitch and go from pitch shy to singing his first song in tune. 

Tone Deaf Tip 1 - Take a Baseline

Self-improvement always works best if you know where you’re starting from and you can track your progress. Sometimes, adults can be overly critical of themselves and underestimate what they can actually do. Other times, people can have an overinflated view of their abilities. We want to avoid both of those mistakes. We want to avoid making sweeping judgements of ourselves and just understand what is.

In my 10-week tone deaf academy, we use 4 tests to establish your baseline

  • Echo sing – imitate 10 random notes performed by a singer performing in your octave
  • Imitate with your voice 10 random notes played on the piano
  • Sing a 5-tone scale with at least 5 repetitions
  • Sing 4 lines or a chorus of any song that you think it suitable

Tone Deaf Tip 2 - Get some help

Research shows us that most humans have developed a secure sense of pitch by about the age of 10 years. How do we achieve this? By listening to vocal sounds, imitating them with our voice, and getting feedback about how accurate we were. Also, by singing along with other people who are musically capable.

In other words, learning to sing is a special kind of human interaction. If you’re struggling right now with your sense of pitch and don’t always sing in tune, it’s not because you don’t have a talent for singing.

Almost certainly, you missed out on this type of human interaction in those important formative years. In other words, you didn’t have good singing role-models. But all is not lost. You can still improve, but it involves returning to those experiences you missed out on and getting help.

A question I get asked regularly is, can you recommend an APP that will help me improve my pitch. Let me tell you… I am so *AGAINST* the use of APPs for this type of learning in the first instance.

APPs are good at testing you and telling you if you’re right or wrong, but this is not an efficient way to learn musical skills. Imagine if you tried to learn how to drive a car by repeatedly taking a driving test. Theoretically, you could probably do it, but you would need to take the test so many times and the process of repeatedly getting it wrong would be soul destroying.

APPs give you a safe place to hide and avoid the embarrassment of being wrong. But that’s what got you into this position in the first place. If you want to improve your pitch, find someone to help you.

What you are looking for is a musical parent. They don’t need to be a professional musician – just someone who is more skilled than you and is willing to come along with you on this journey.

In Leon’s case, he has a partner who is a semi-professional singer and he invested in taking lessons with a skilled voice coach. He was consistent in taking lessons, once and sometimes twice a week

Tone Deaf Tip 3 - Explore Your Voice

French author and Nobel prize winner, André Gide said…
“You cannot discover new oceans unless you have the courage to lose sight of the shore” André Gide
As Adult learners, we have an enormous capacity to get in our own way or to be unnecessarily hard on ourselves. We do this by expecting that all our vocal sounds need to be finished, polished and professional from day 1 and we are embarrassed by sounds that are less than perfect. Research has shown that some adults have pitch problems because they are unable to modulate or control their vocal muscles. Exploring your voice is crucial to building vocal confidence. Find the highest and lowest tones you can sing and everything in between. Don’t be afraid to imitate sounds around you in order to learn – other singers, animals, machines, whatever helps you free your voice.

Tone Deaf Tip 4 - Release Tension

Learning to sing is not always about taking on something new, but also about learning to trust yourself and learning how to let sounds just happen.

You don’t need lessons to give you a voice, but to release the one you have Harrison, Peter (2006) The Human Nature of the Singing Voice, Dunedin Academic Press

Always start with the assumption that YOU are born to sing. Then, instead of trying to get singing into you, look for the things that are preventing your natural singing voice from expressing itself.

In Leon’s case there were some blockages, both mental and physical. The physical blockages included some unwanted tension in the tongue, jaw and neck.

The strategies that really helped Leon involved helping identify the problem by “catching himself in the act” and then giving him tools and for releasing the tension.

I have another video that covers the topic of addressing unwanted tension in a lot more detail.

Tone Deaf Tip 5 - Feedback & Education

Part of the reason there is so much fear about singing is the result of poor music education or, in many cases around this country, a complete lack of music education.

Many adults believe that singing is something magical – you either have it or you don’t. In institutions where singing programs exist, often the prime focus is on performing, not on training the voice.

This creates an elitist attitude. Those who can will often succeed, and those who struggle have no clear path to improvement or be told not to sing.

With training, anyone can improve their singing. But that training needs to focus on things you can do to change your sound.

Teachers can confidently tell a student they are wrong as long as they are able to demonstrate the difference between wrong and right, and as long as there is some way the student can monitor and assess what is wrong or right.

Tone Deaf Tip 6 - Ear Training

Another reason adults struggle with pitch skills is because they don’t know how to listen to their voice, or they don’t know how to listen to pitch. Ear training is a process where we help you become more sensitive or aware of:
  1. pitch changes, tonality and pitch relationships
  2. Your outside voice or the sounds coming in to your ears
Regardless of what instrument you’re learning, ear training is an important part of building musical skills. The use of relative pitch names, either tonic sol-fa (do-re-mi) or scale degree numbers (1-2-3) is essential. I strongly recommend sol-fa over the numbers. It achieves faster and more secure results.

Tone Deaf Tip 7 - Song Choice

Adults who start training often want to be singing songs that they know. In other words, songs from current artists, songs in the media and top 40 hits.

It’s completely understandable that we want to emulate our role models. However, many of the current songs are unsuitable for training a beginner who is building their sense of pitch.

For example, they might be in unsuitable keys or have a vocal range that is too large. They instrumentation might be complex making it difficult to focus just on the pitch. Also, many have digital effects on the voice, such as auto tune.

There is a history of songs that have been used successfully for more than a century to teach people to sing in tune and comprehend pitch.

These are folk songs – songs with very small pitch range (3, 4 and 5 notes), memorable words and simple rhythm patterns.

Although these songs are often associated with teaching children, adults can greatly benefit from starting out their musical journey with a repertoire of folk music. Those who do will achieve faster results and progress to more complex music easily.


When I think about what really made the most difference for Leon, it really comes down to three things
  1. Persistence
  2. Process, and
  3. Positive attitude
Leon’s journey is still continuing and hopefully, I will be able to update you again soon. Please do me a favour and leave a comment in the YouTube channel thanking Leon for putting himself out there to help you. Now it’s your turn. Is it time you put to rest the idea that you’re tone deaf? Conquering your pitch problems has far-reaching value for your life – it will make you a more confident, self-assured person with a greater knowledge of self.

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