Everyone can learn to sing.
No, no, save your protestations.
Everyone can learn to sing.
“Well not me, I’ve never been able to–“
EVERYONE CAN LEARN TO SING.
Maybe the more correct way to put it is “everyone has the capacity to learn to sing,” but that’s less pithy and sounds more complicated. It’s 100% true, though. Assuming that a person has use of their lungs and vocal cords, they are physically capable of singing, and assuming they have brain activity and an ability and willingness to practice, they can learn to sing.
“But I know this person who is just totally tone deaf–“
“Tone deaf” doesn’t really exist the way we think it does. It’s not an immutable trait, like being born with certain facial features or genetic dispositions, but rather a potentially temporary state of being. “Tone deaf” itself is a misleading moniker, because it’s actually less a matter of being unable to perceive pitch correctly than being unable match that pitch while singing. This could come down to literal vocal disuse and weak muscles related to sound production, or to a lack of ear training, wherein they just can’t tell they’re not matching the pitch they’re hearing when they sing, or simply a combination of lacking knowledge, inexperience, and nerves related to both.
The most direct comparison I can think of is to compare it to drawing. Being “tone deaf” might be like having minimal drawing skills– stick figures at best. It’s not that one’s eyes cannot perceive the images they attempt to draw. This would render them totally incapable of replicating it on paper. It’s more that they cannot make the translation to paper, and can’t spot where their mistakes in translation occur to get themselves on the right track. For example, they might lack the (learnable) ability to break down a complicated form into simpler shapes, and as a result struggle to recreate a recognizable form– but be unsure what makes their drawn form unrecognizable. By learning some artistic theory, working the necessary muscles, bettering their observation skills, and practicing a lot, this person could improve in all the necessary ways to become a gifted artist. Incidentally, everyone is capable of learning how to draw, too, though that’s another subject entirely!
The arts are tied up in a lot of emotional turmoil, usually. Someone who struggles to draw or sing might have a lot of difficulty accepting that there’s a way for them to improve. Therefore, it might be more helpful to say that being tone deaf is much like not knowing how to add or subtract. Every newborn baby is not mathematically challenged or forever incapable of basic arithmetic just because they’ve never tried or been taught to add or subtract. They’ll just need to practice and learn.
Basically, if you haven’t yet been taught or really put much energy into practicing something, saying you “can’t” do it might be true in the present, but saying you “can’t yet” do it is more likely correct.
So no, “tone deaf” is not a death sentence for a person’s singing life– it just means they need to work a little harder to catch up to people who don’t have much trouble carrying a tune.
Part of the problem lies in our understanding of talent. We, as a society, place entirely too much stock in the value of inborn talent, when in reality inborn talent hardly exists, anyway! Any child who is “skilled” in any area will still need to spend years and years practicing to cultivate any ability that is lastingly impressive into adulthood, and their natural skill will naturally encourage them to continue in that area. For example, a think of a small child who likes to draw and paint. As a baby, they may simply enjoy the tactile feeling of paint, or the visible stimulation drawing creates. The fact that they enjoy art means they are likely to continue doing it, and if they show some skill at it they will likely be encouraged to continue, which will bolster their willingness to practice further. In time, they may be a gifted artist for their age, however by any standards other than those of a small child’s, they’re of course probably not that good. Even the most gifted toddler will probably, of course, not meet the standards set for even a somewhat mediocre adult artist. Adults, having spent far longer being alive and functioning, obviously have much more opportunity to grow and improve than young kids. Therefore they are able to create at a much higher level than most children. None of this is news, but keep in mind that no child is born being able to create the works of art adults that are– rather, by mix of rather natural interest and significant enjoyment of and encouragement of practice, some children become more skilled than others. These children may become artistically gifted adults, who create very impressive pieces. They probably still finger-painted blobby humans and drew the sun in the corner of their skies like the rest of us for the first several years of their life.
What I’m getting at is this: inborn talent is fake. It doesn’t exist. Even child prodigies aren’t born with their full abilities– considerable encouragement and training is required to create anything resembling a developed skill. Practice is always required for mastery.
People overlook this and assume singing is a gift bestowed, fully formed, at birth, and that tone deafness and poor singing ability are curses also delivered at the same junction, and that there’s no way to change these seemingly inherent traits going forward. This is incorrect.
This isn’t to say everyone doesn’t have different natural inclinations and abilities, because of course we all do. The biological makeup of your body can impact the way your voice sounds and functions. Yes, a predestination for beautiful singing could be coded into your DNA– but even if you were born with all the right pieces, you would never be able to sing well if you didn’t practice singing.
Alright, fine, you might be thinking: Everyone can learn to sing, but how are tone deaf people supposed to turn around all the sudden and become singers?
I’m glad you asked.
As I said, tone deafness often results from a lack of practice matching pitch. This is solved easily enough– practice matching pitch! If you have trouble telling when you’re actually matching a note, rehearse under the guidance of a voice teacher. They’ll be able to tell you when you’re actually hitting the note you’re trying to hit, and help guide you to it if you’re not!
Once you can recognize when you’re matching a pitch correctly, you can practice doing so more consistently. You could do this by singing along with the radio, or you could work more specifically by playing notes on a piano (or piano app on your phone) and singing the notes. You could try playing a note and waiting a few seconds and then singing it, or pressing the note once, singing and maintaining it over several seconds, and then pressing the note again to ensure you’ve stayed on pitch.
Once you’ve mastered matching pitch, there’s a whole host of second steps you could take– that is truly just step one. Perhaps the best second step a budding singer could take would involve some light vocal technique investigation (also optimally achieved with a voice teacher) and work on your tone, breath support, singing health. This way, no matter where you go from here, you’ll have a solid knowledge base to build from. The important thing is that you continue practicing. It’s the only way to get any sort of “talent”!
So remember, the next time you or anyone you know says, “I’ll never be able to sing, I’m tone deaf,” the only difference between tone-deafness and professional singing ability is lots and lots and lots of practice.
P.S. This, by the way, is how nearly everything in life functions.
If you put your mind to nearly anything and have a plan for improvement catered appropriately to your entry level, you can improve in that area. If you don’t believe me, you can read this true story I posted here on the blog about desperately trying to hit a high note for the entirety of tech week until finally it happened the day before opening. Mild language warning.