Can the tone deaf learn to sing?

Man straining to sing

Can't sing, won't sing? As the BBC researches the musical abilities of the nation, are those convinced they are tone deaf really irredeemably non-musical?

Can't carry a tune in a basket?

Despite the term, most tone deaf people can hear music perfectly well - they just can't sing.

And many aren't tone deaf at all - they simply lack confidence and practice, particularly if their tunelessness was criticised as a child.

"A very small proportion of the population are truly tone deaf," says Dr Daniel Mullensiefen of Goldsmiths University of London, co-creator of the BBC's new musicality test, which explores whether enthusiasm for music - rather than formal training alone - helps confer ability.

How musical are you?

Cameron Diaz in My Best Friend's Wedding - her character is given a rousing round of applause at a karaoke bar despite, or because of, her tunelessness
  • Takes 25 minutes on a computer with sound
  • Covers listening habits and your emotional response to music
  • Tests include tapping out beats, memorising tunes and sorting clips by genre

"Traditionally, musicality was defined as something that you got from practising for hours in a darkened room. But we want to show it's a much broader and wider concept."

So it could be measured by how often - and attentively - you listen to music, how avidly you talk about it, and whether you can tap out a beat.

There's no singing involved in the BBC test, but it does include tapping beats and sorting clips by genre. So those who claim to be tone deaf may score higher than expected, and feel encouraged to have a crack at making music.

And the easiest instrument to try is the human voice.

Most people can learn to sing better, says Andrea Brown of Morley College, a south London adult education centre which for 15 years has run Can't Sing Choirs and vocal courses for the tuneless.

"Less than 2% of the students I've trained have been profoundly tone deaf. Everyone has their own unique voice," says Brown diplomatically.

From can't sing choir to singer

"There were occasional noises from the bath, but I hadn't sung for at least 50 years," says Ian Gorman, who joined a Morley College Can't Sing Choir several years ago.

"I had a hard time hitting notes and remembering songs. There were some people in the choir with truly awful voices, and others who were average.

"Andrea [Brown] got us doing exercises like yawning before singing, counting up and down scales, and bending forward with a picking-up movement to help reach the high notes.

"Singing badly in a group is great fun. It's football crowd syndrome - not a single person hits the right notes, but it sounds good. It kick-started me, and now I sing in choirs doing Beethoven and Handel."

"Some are really quite off-piste at first, and need extra help one-on-one. Most tend to be shy about their voice, and we try to coax more sound out of them. Doing singing lessons is like going to the gym - you've got to exercise the right muscles."

So little time has she with claims of tunelessness that one course is called Tone Deaf? No Way. Other colleges and music teachers around the UK offer similarly titled classes and choirs - all of which provide safety in numbers for those lacking in vocal confidence.

Beginners are taught how to change the pitch of the notes they sing, the same way their voices go up and down when talking.

"A lot of the exercises we do with absolute beginners are speaking, not singing. The larynx is moveable and they can pitch their voices. We teach them to co-ordinate what they hear with the sound they make."

There are also rhythm games, breathing and posture exercises.

And for those harbouring hurtful memories of trying to sing a note played on the school piano by an increasingly irate teacher, a word of comfort - it's harder to match a piano note than a tone sung by another voice.

"It can help to have a male and a female singing tutor, so the men and women in the class can hear voices with broadly similar tones to their own," says Brown.

The California-based composer, William A Mathieu, has run tone deaf singing courses for years. He estimates one in 20 people consider themselves tone deaf, usually after being labelled as such in childhood.

He explains why in an audio book on his tone deaf choirs.

How do your results compare?

Music test website
  • 5 live's Nicky Campbell is in a band
  • He scored 16/18 in match the beat and 9/12 for melody memory
  • Radio 3's Suzy Klein has first class hons in music
  • She scored 14/18 in match the beat and 12/12 for melody memory

"If, in your early student life, you were slightly slower to perceive pitch relationship, it wasn't long before you were given by your peers, or an insensitive teacher, the identity of 'the one who can't sing'."

The first day is spent sharing stories of hurtful words and shattered confidence. Next, he gets participants to make fluctuating and non-fluctuating sounds, imitating a siren for the first and a dial tone for the latter.

Then Mathieu moves on to note matching. Instead of asking non-singers to match a note sung by a tutor or played on a piano, he asks them to sing a tone, and the tutor then matches it. Hey presto, for the first time, they are singing in tune with someone else.

"An entire class of 10 tone-deafers singing one pitch is a triumph and the excitement is hard to contain," he says.

Within eight to 10 sessions, simple part-singing can be tried. "In 20 years, I have yet to find the singer who can't be aided by a little resonant musical guidance," Mathieu tells the BBC News Magazine.


More on This Story

In today's Magazine

Related Stories

The BBC is not responsible for the content of external Internet sites


This entry is now closed for comments

Jump to comments pagination
  • rate this

    Comment number 62.

    I worked with a man who was told as a child he was tone deaf but, when I heard him sing along with songs on the radio, I realized he actually was singing harmony. When I informed him of his ability it was like he was a child and I couldn't get him to shut up!

  • rate this

    Comment number 55.

    I've loved and been very aware of music since I was a little girl but never got the chance to study it as a subject or get professional training.I got 100% for Musical Perception,10/12 for Melody Memory,95% for Enthusiasm and high score for other tests too - sooo frustrated that I didn't get trained, would've loved a career in music, been in a choir for 26 yrs and sang with Ladies'! Brill!!

  • rate this

    Comment number 41.

    I recently heard an interview with the folk singer Jon Boden, who is involved in a project to bring back 'social singing' in the UK. He said, "You should never tell anyone they 'can't sing'. Everyone can sing. They might not be able to sing in tune, particularly, but that's not the point. Everyone's voice has a quality that's worth hearing." As someone who can't carry a tune, I was encouraged!

  • rate this

    Comment number 38.

    As a child I was told I was tone-deaf - not even allowed to sing along in the car - which didn't do much for my confidence. I improved a bit by playing music . I live in Germany and it's a joy to see how the concept of tone deafness just doesn't exist in my children's school - they are singing all the time and it's just completely accepted that all kids can and should sing lots and so they do!

  • rate this

    Comment number 27.

    Brilliant I scored 10 out 12 for melody memory. the only trouble is I guessed 8 of them and none of the 4 I was sure of turned out to be correct. Also got 0% for musical perception, despite trying very hard all through the test. No wonder the rugby club has banned me from singing. Well back to singing in the car when there's no one else to complain. I love it anyway.


Comments 5 of 13


Features & Analysis

Elsewhere on the BBC

  • Audi R8Need for speed

    Audi unveils its fastest production car ever - ahead of its Geneva debut


  • 3D model of Christ the Redeemer statueClick Watch

    Using drones to 3D map the famous Brazilian landmark Christ the Redeemer

Try our new site and tell us what you think. Learn more
Take me there

Copyright © 2015 BBC. The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites. Read more.

This page is best viewed in an up-to-date web browser with style sheets (CSS) enabled. While you will be able to view the content of this page in your current browser, you will not be able to get the full visual experience. Please consider upgrading your browser software or enabling style sheets (CSS) if you are able to do so.