Cathleen Wilder
Laughing Spirit Music Project

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Tone Deaf or Pitch Challenged?

Since beginning to teach the popular class and workshop, How to Sing in the Shower, I have been struck by the number of people who have shared stories with me that go something like this: "My third grade choir teacher put me in the back row and told me to mouth the words. I haven't sung a note since, except when I'm alone in the car with the stereo on full blast."

Again and again, it pains me to hear these stories and to think about how much joy has been robbed from these people because of this kind of insensitivity, ignorance or downright cruelty.

The truth is, some people (estimates range from 1 - 4%) do have a neurological disorder that makes it difficult, if not impossible, to discriminate between pitches.These rare folk have a condition known as amusia, which not only prevents them from singing in tune but also may make it impossible for them to make any sense of melodic information. Although neurologists concur that this condition exists, they are nowhere near understanding whether or how the condition can be improved, either in children or adults.

Aside from this basic fact, most of what you and I have heard about the nature of "tone deafness" comes from conjecture, misunderstandings and assumptions that have circulated throughout the prevalent culture -- passed on from teacher to student, parent to child, and website to website.

The greatest misunderstanding is the belief that everyone who has trouble carrying a tune is "tone deaf" this belief generates the notion that"tone deafness" is a common condition. Since what is called tone deafness is usually not true amusia, it is also wrong to conclude that it is untreatable.

In fact, it may well be that the lack of progress in most individuals who are labeled tone deaf (especially from an early age) is due to the ineptitude of those who gave them that demoralizing label in the first place, as well as the subsequent musical deprivation that follows such labeling.

In contrast, the majority of students (adults and teens) who have come to me with pitch-matching issues have improved significantly when given structure, support, information and plenty of safe music-making opportunities.Only about one in ten of those who come to me believing they are tone deaf appear to have significant neurological issues and are unable to make meaningful progress.

About two out of ten of my pitch-challenged students make slow but definite progress that requires consistent reinforcement. These students clearly do not have amusia, and many of them gain enough skill to enjoy singing in choirs and song circles, although their abilities may continue to be somewhat compromised. (Interestingly, most of the students who fall into this category had very little music around them growing up.)

The remaining seven out of ten students who come to me thinking they might be tone deaf or actually having a tendency to sing "off key" make fairly rapid and permanent progress. Most of these students had simply not sung much in their lives or had missed out on early opportunities for musical training. Once some basic skills were in place, they were good to go. In fact, many of the students who come to me thinking they have problems have fairly average ability but are simply lacking in confidence.

Fortunately this success rate is not entirely unique. More and more teachers and choir directors are becoming willing to create supportive environments for those with musical learning disabilities and to experiment with ways to diagnose and teach them. Through their intelligent and compassionate efforts, as well as continued neurological studies, I look forward the day when truly "all God's children have a place in the choir"

2005-2008 Cathleen Wilder. All rights reserved.