Time after time, I get new vocal students claiming to be “tone deaf.” In all my years teaching, however, I’ve never encountered a single student—let me repeat that, not a single student—who’s actually been tone deaf. This isn’t to say that they all know how to match pitch when they begin voice lessons. In fact, typically, the ones who claim to be tone deaf don’t know how to match pitch. To any outside observer, they would, in fact, sound tone deaf. But within about a month of vocal lessons, they begin to match pitch. Within a year of lessons, many of them sound as good as any of my other students, and some go off and have performance careers! So if you’re wondering, am I tone deaf, the short answer is, probably not.
What Does Tone Deaf Mean?
Amusia, or tone deafness, only affects around 4% of the population, so it’s unlikely that you’re one of the 4%. If when you sing, you’re even close to hitting a lot of the pitches, it’s even less likely. But if you think amusia is a real possibility for you, the most definitive tone deafness test out there today is the Montreal Battery of Evaluation of Amusia. If you take this test and get diagnosed with amusia, you have my permission to skip the next karaoke event and legitimately tell all your friends that you’re tone deaf.
How To Match Pitch
If, on the other hand, you’re one of the other 96% of the population, learning to match pitch should not take long, with a little effort. The first thing you’ll need to do is build some muscle memory for the correct pitches.
Find a Voice Teacher
This is easiest to do if you have a voice teacher who can tell you when you’re on or off and whether you’re too low or too high. If you’re interested in online singing lessons, or if you’re in the Orange County area and prefer in-person voice lessons, we’ve got you covered, but if you do a little research, you’ll probably be able to find some in your area.
Get a Pitch Matching App
If time or budget make voice lessons too difficult to figure out, technology can get you a long way these days. There are many smart phone apps out there, including Do Re Mi Voice Training, the Theta Music Trainer online, and Pitch Perfect, for the Android. A simple pitch pipe would also do the trick! With these, you can determine whether you’re on pitch, above, or below the pitch and practice until you become more consistent.
Try This Pitch Matching Exercise
Here’s an exercise that can help you get started with matching pitch, but if you aren’t able to tell on your own how close you are, you’ll need either another listener or a pitch pipe or app.
Start by playing a pitch on a pitch pipe or musical instrument. If you can, find a pitch that falls in your speaking range, one that doesn’t sound very high or very low. Try your best to match it on your first try, but if this doesn’t happen, begin sliding your voice higher and lower like a siren until your voice sounds like it’s matching the instrument.
Try This More Involved Pitch Matching Exercise
1. We’re going to start, simply by singing “Do.” Women can start on middle C, since that’s often an easy part of their speaking range, and men can start on the C below that. Sing “Do,” and try to match your voice to the recording. Once you’re confident that you’re hitting the note correctly, move on to #2.
2. Now we’re going to add a note: Do-Re-Do (C-D-C if you’re playing the notes on an instrument). Continue working on this until you’re matching both pitches easily.
You get the idea. Keep moving up the scale, but if you begin to feel like you have to reach for the pitches, back off. At this point, you’ll need to get some other things straight before learning to hit the high notes.
As you become more comfortable hearing when you’re on or off pitch, practice becomes easier and easier. Eventually, you should be able to dispense with the pitch-matching app and correct yourself. At this point, you’ll just need to build muscle memory, and one of the best ways to do this is to sing along with songs you enjoy, listening very carefully to when you’re on and off pitch and trying to self-correct as you go. Do your best to start with songs that easily fall within your speaking range–i.e. that don’t go too low or too high to feel comfortable.