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  • Writer's pictureA SINGING TEACHER'S BLOG


Updated: Apr 14, 2023

People are always coming into singing lessons asking if I can teach them to sing in tune. In singing, we call this having “pitch”. I did a bit of research to support this post and unsurprisingly there are numerous (in my view spurious) videos on Youtube claiming to be able to help people who are “tone deaf” be able to hear different notes and sing in tune. They have clearly overlooked the fact that if somebody is truly tone deaf, they cannot hear the difference between the notes in the first place, in order to then be able to differentiate between them! As such, I’ve decided in this blog to firstly tell you what my experience of all the students I’ve taught has been and then secondly, to provide you with some actual research findings from auditory cognitive research scientists – not claims, as mentioned above on Youtube!

My experience: in my eighteen years of teaching singing, I have found that most people who come into lessons (yes, most) have a problem with pitch, but for most of these people the pitch problem is slight and so doesn’t cause them too much of a problem. Effectively, they can sing a song in tune if they have learned it and there is nothing too much to distract them eg. other singers singing a different melody in harmony.

Again, in my experience, the perception of pitch is a spectrum. At one end, you’ve got perfect pitch (I’ve had one person in that eighteen years with perfect pitch – meaning that if you asked them to sing an augmented fifth in the key of C they’d be able to sing it without any reference to an instrument - it’s pretty amazing!) At the other end of the spectrum there is tone deafness and again, I’ve only had one person in eighteen years who was really tone deaf (although a lot of people refer to themselves as tone deaf, no doubt because they don’t know what that actually means). Proper tone deafness is very rare – literally meaning that they just cannot hear the difference between any notes, so it’s impossible to teach them. Happily, because they're unaware of this, it doesn't diminish their enjoyment of singing (perhaps the people around them though?!!).

This is what my experience has demonstrated:

Good pitch Most singers fewer singers

Perfect pitch ------------------------------------------------------tone deafness

I have found over the years that those people who have relative pitch/good pitch, they can hear notes instantly and replicate them (as can I). For those with a bit of a pitch issue, they will hesitate over notes a bit more or be inclined to go flat or sharp (singing below or above a note) but - and it’s a big but, they can hear when they’ve done this. As such, with concentration and practice, they can correct the note and as I’ve said above, it may take them a bit longer to learn a song than it takes me, for example, but once they’ve learned it, they can sing it well and in pitch. There will be loads of people who come into this category who sing in choirs, and they will be able to learn pieces to the right standard.

For those whose pitch is in the half of the spectrum travelling closer to tone deafness, it’s much harder as they have much less ability to hear notes. Those they can hear, they can’t correct very easily, although some can some of the time. It comes down to what’s happening in the brain, therefore, and no amount of “listening” is going to help something if you can’t hear it well in the first place.

I also feel that these days, there is an element of laziness – I don’t mean that nastily, but more than ever before most people spend their time singing along to somebody else and music is available on phones, tablets, radios, car stereos, through headphones – a lot of people are effectively never switched “off”. Inevitably, without really hearing your voice in the normal, natural way, you have less way of knowing if you’re singing in tune properly. It’s good to sing with just you! I always give my students a bit of time in the first few lessons to assess this as I think it’s a definite factor these days.

So, what is my view of tone deafness and pitch problems? I honestly believe that once pitch is settled - it is what it is and surely it’s better to understand that you may have a problem rather than pretend you haven’t and constantly seek a solution to this! That’s pretty much like denying that you’ve got green eyes! I have taught so many students in the past nearly twenty years and despite trying all the supposed things that help people to hear pitch better, they don’t and I think the only time I’ve ever seen somebody’s pitch improve, I later found out that that student had fractured his skull in a car accident years before. I think the accident damaged his brain but when he started lessons, his brain created new neural networks to re-connect him to his good pitch (which I believe he must have had originally as I didn’t do anything different with him from any other student).

So........onto the research from audio/cognitive scientists. Please note that "single-pitching" means singing one note and the studies were carried out on healthy adults:

Amir et al (2003) single pitch-matching = main results show that non-musicians are less accurate (1.3semitones) than musicians (0.5 semitones). The high accuracy is related to a superior pitch ability/discrimination.

Watts et al (2005) single pitch-matching = accuracy in the general population spans from 0.9 semitones (good singers) to 2.2 semitones (poor singers)

Dalla Bella et al (2007) singing from memory of familiar melodies = most occasional singers (90%) are accurate on the pitch (less than 0.5 semitones) and time dimensions, when performing at a slow tempo.

Pfordresher & Brown (2007) imitation of single pitches, intervals ans short melodies = 85-90% of the non-musicians can imitate the target stimuli (error less than 1 semitone). Accuracy in pitch-matching is not related to pitch discrimination abilities.

Wise and Sioboda (2008) imitation of single pitches and of short pitch patterns (2,3,5 notes) = non-musicians exhibit good accuracy (less than 1 semitone), in particular for short stimuli (around 0.2/0.3 semitones for single pitches).

Dalla Bella & Berkowska (2009) & (2009a) singing from memory and imitation of familiar melodies = around 90% of occasional singers can imitate or sing from memory a familiar melody (accuracy = 0.5 – 0.6 semitones). Imitation in particular on a syllable affords higher accuracy.

Pfordfresher at al (2010) imitation of 5 note unfamiliar pitch sequences, and singing from memory of familiar songs = 54-60% of non-musicians are imprecise singers in terms of absolute and/or relative pitch. The relation between precision and accuracy is asymmetric. Whereas low accuracy is almost always associated with low precision, the reverse is not true.

So what does all this mean? Pretty much what my own teaching experience has demonstrated to me that if you test somebody by asking them to sing single notes, their pitch problems will be pretty evident. If you ask them to sing a song they know already, from memory, most will be able to sing it in tune or much more accurately, providing the pitch problem isn't far down the scale towards true tone deafness.

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