Over the course of my career, I have worked with many people who considered themselves “tone deaf.” The condition amusia in which pitch and musical memory is impaired, either congenitally or as a result of brain damage, affects about 4% of the population. That means that 96% of all people everywhere are not tone deaf!
I have worked with a fair number of folks who have trouble matching pitches or singing in tune. If a new student presents intonation issues, that is the first thing we will work on. There are a number of reasons why someone might have trouble singing in tune.
Confidence. Most people who consider themselves “bad singers” were told that they were bad singers as a child. I have seen it over and over again. It is a childhood trauma that most people remember vividly. And I only see the folks who are willing to face their fear and come to singing lessons. It saddens me to think of the many people who don’t. Without musical encouragement, children cut themselves off from their musical potential and don’t develop the skills they otherwise could have.
Hearing Issues. Anecdotally speaking, many students who have come to study with me presenting significant pitch issues usually admitted that they had some kind of hearing issue. If that hasn’t been ruled out, I do recommend students get their hearing checked for the full range of sound frequencies.
Imitative Deficit. A study out of Montreal suggests that, independent of other factors, some people’s brains are wired to produce the wrong pitch. They can accurately match pitches using a computer program, but when it comes to reproducing a given pitch with their own voice, the brain gives the voice incorrect information. Many of these people can be successful musicians as instrumentalists. With hard work, patience, and a good voice teacher, the brain can be remapped to produce correct pitches.
Fortunately, I have had great success with “rehabilitating” students who struggle with pitch. While everyone’s “treatment” is a little bit different, it usually involves a combination of ear training exercises, piano work, and a good set of head phones.
And, of course, a great deal of practice and determination.