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Conference Morsel: Tone Deaf. Really?

(An excerpt from the interest session “Tone Deafness and other Myths,” presented by Steven M. Demorest during the 2014 ACDA Northwestern Division Conference)
       Question: Is there such a thing as tone deafness?
       Answer: Yes, BUT.
       The majority of people who think they are “tone deaf” have normal perceptual skills (Cuddy, et al., 2005 ; Sloboda, Wise & Peretz, 2005). It turns out that when people talk about being “tone deaf”, what they really mean is that they don’t sing well or accurately. Consequently, such individuals will not benefit from “ear” training per se, but more likely from singing instruction and increased singing opportunities. There problem lies with the coordination between what they hear and what they try to produce with their voice.
       There is such a thing as true tone deafness – that is, people who cannot hear or remember changes in pitch information, or distinguish obvious pitch changes between two melodies. This is a neurological condition called congenital amusia that affects less than 4% of the population (Peretz, Champod & Hyde, 2003). There is an online test that can help someone determine if they have difficulty hearing pitch.
on May 13, 2014 6:33am
In my 40 years' experience in auditioning singers for choral ensembles nearly all auditionees who fall into the category of "tone deafness" simply cannot find the note in their voice, or it takes a very long time for them to do that. In response, we develop a class at Harvard called "Choir-in-Progress". The class met for 1 hour twice weekly and over time all these students improved to some degree or another - almost always they learned how to match the pitch they heard. Ear-Voice coordination was taught in conjunction with learning to read music, vocal training, and elementary musicianship.
In one semester nearly all of these students went on to sing with the Harvard-Radcliffe Chorus, a large (200 voice) chorus of undergraduates (learning to sing, but with very basic skills), graduate students who did not have time to sing with our other ensembles, faculty, staff, and a great many community singers - some excellent with considerable experience, some slow. "Choir-in-Progress "graduates" sitting in large S A T B sections next to more advanced singers now had the aptitude to improve: ear/voice coordiation, voice production, and sight-reading.
After one year in the HR Chorus most of them became qualified to join our traditional choruses: Harvard Glee Club, Radcliffe Choral Society, HR Collegium Musicum. It was always a great pleasure to audition these students (again) and to see just how far they had progressed. Many went on to become leaders of their SATB section, and officers in these ensembles. Their training, achieved through these three levels of choirs, offered them the opportunity to continue to sing after graduation in adult choirs - an avenue of self-expression that became an automatic part of their life's journey.
-Jim Marvin, Director of Choral Activities, Harvard University: 1978-2010.
Applauded by an audience of 2
on May 13, 2014 10:01am
We need more of these kind of groups! In Britain they have a series of "Can't Sing Choirs" for people who feel they are bad singers but really want to learn and participate in singing. I have had similar experiences with the UW Men's Glee Club where in just 10 weeks or a year, these inconsistent singers have developeda much better connection to their voice.

Applauded by an audience of 1
on May 13, 2014 9:35am
Although I spend 90 per cent of my time conducting adult choirs, I also teach a music class of 3-5 year olds at our local Montessori school where I teach Dalcroze Eurythmics and ear training through general music. I have been there 8 years, and while there are usually one or two children who can't match pitch when they start the class in the fall, within a few weeks they have no trouble. In fact, I haven't had one child in all that time who couldn't match pitch when taught to listen carefully and "put their bodies behind the sound." It is a blessing if one can catch them early in life and make them aware of just how to match pitch before they become self-conscious about the sound of their voices (or some sibling tells them to shut up!) and refuse to sing. What a privilege to be able to start these kids off on the right track and great to see that through their elementary years they tend not to lose this ability as long as the teaching is consistant.
This is the most rewarding contribution I feel I can make to future generations of music appreciators!
Andrea Goodman
Applauded by an audience of 2
on May 13, 2014 10:10am
OMG What if our music classes (open enrollment) had 4% students congenital amusia? That would be terrible!
I do have one little girl that I suspect has such a disorder. I followed "an online test" link above and got to a website requiring an access code. Is there another way to find this test?
on May 13, 2014 10:45am
Jim, Scott, Steven, and anyone else who is interested,
Heart-felt applause to Steven Demorest for presenting up-to-date information about so-called "tone-deaf" human beings, with good documentation, and to Scott for posting the core information.
Applause and cheers to Jim for describing his wonderful "Choir-in-Progress" program at Harvard for people who are still learning the ear-brain-voice abilities that are necessary for satisfying singing! I sure would like to believe that similar classes are offerred in school, college, and university choral/voice departments/schools all over the world.
I insert "brain" between "ear" and "voice" because all learning is accomplished by altering and elaborating both sensory and motor neural networks within various areas of human brains. Because singing involves a very intricate and subtle set of multisensory and motor interactions, it takes a right good amount of time for relevant neuron groups to literally grow: (1) new neurons (in the hippocampi for making memories), (2) dendrites and dendrite spines, (3) myelinated axons and axon terminals, and (4) synapses that connect billions of neurons into widespread, intricate networks. the ends of all those axons, various neurotransmitter molecules have to be synthesized so that when an electrochemical charge passes through the axons, the neurotransmitters "shoot across" the synaptic gaps to excite or inhibit the networked neurons that those billions of neurons are part of. So there are complex auditory networks that start in the inner ear, or in 'remembered' auditory networks, and are processed through interconnecting networks to the secondary and primary auditory cortices (plural of cortex) and then through two dedicated neuron tracts to the neural networks of the right and left hemispheres' motor systems that then send neuronal signals through the peripheral nervous system to the muscles that actually "sing us." Whew! That's learning, and growing the ability to sing, especially 'from scratch', takes repeated doing over time in a rewarding setting.
Except for people who have congenital amusia, everyone else has the capability for learning to sing a variety of musical styles both skillfully and expressively. The job of teacher-people is to help learning human beings convert their singing capabilities into singing abilities. [Capability is what's possible; ability is what a person can do right now.] Hope this clarifies.