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The Truth About Tone Deafness

bucket head

That bucket won’t help, but vocal exercises will.


If your rendition of ‘Happy Birthday’ sounds a little postmodern, and the only place you’d dare to sing is in the shower, you probably think you’re tone deaf. Perhaps someone once told you you couldn’t carry a tune in a bucket, and you haven’t wanted to open your mouth since. Tone deafness, or amusia, is the inability to hear differences in pitch, or to follow simple melodies. Chances are, you don’t have it. Harvard Medical School reports only 5% of the population is truly tone deaf. If you don’t think you can differentiate between pitch, test yourself here. It’ll only take a minute.

Since true tone deafness turns out to be rare, Peter Q. Pfordresher at SUNY Buffalo and Steven Brown at Simon Fraser University wanted to find out what was really behind “bad singing.” They tested a bunch of college students and found that most participants had adequate hearing, perception, memory, and motor skills. The disconnect came when participants tried to produce with their voice, what was happening in their heads. The moral of the story is that most “tone deafness” can be chalked up to lack of coordination, and that’s great news.

Coordination is something that can be achieved with practice. Most people who think they are tone deaf simply haven’t developed the “muscle memory” to reproduce the sounds in their heads. Learning to sing is only more mysterious than learning to catch a ball or learning to walk, because we don’t have visual cues to work with. Fortunately, vocal exercises and a little bit of diligence will help you develop the coordination you need to sing well. We’ll post some exercises soon, so check back often. In the meantime, rest easy, and take that bucket off your head.

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