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The Myth of Tone Deafness

The Myth of Tone Deafness –Article for The Stage by Leontine Hass


As a vocal coach one of the most frequent responses I encounter upon revealing what I do for a living, is the comment ‘Oh I’m completely tone-deaf’. If I can be bothered, there ensues a little debate where I aim to convince the person I am speaking to that only people with real hearing damage are tone-deaf, and they in turn try to convince me that they are the only person on this earth who were born beyond Apollo’s reach. The God of Music was having a nap when they were born, their vocal ability is beyond help. Only belligerent cats and mating foxes are capable of exuding from their bodies a more despicable noise. There follows a moment of brain fog on my part where I endeavour to make the decision whether to enlighten the subject and give them hope for their vocal future, or whether this effort will go on deaf ears so to speak. In order to cleanse my soul from the times I decided not to bother but to smile in a non-committal sort of way and reach for a new subject, I am writing this article. When finished I will print it out, fold it up, put it in my wallet, and brandish it boldly on every future such occasion.

So, if you are not hearing damaged you are NOT tone deaf. There may be a small rugby team full of family members (especially younger brothers) and friends who have pointed out to you in various ways, ranging from smugly compassionate to outright abusive that it is best you mime in church as you have an untenable and irreversible problem which is both embarrassing and publicly offensive. However, sadly for you as you are now fully responsible, this is in fact not the case.

Many people find it difficult to sing a pitch they hear. Such people were inevitably not born into a musical family, they were probably not sung to, they tend not to play an instrument. It is quite simply a case of a lack of ear/larynx coordination. As babies we practice hand eye coordination as a matter of survival. Reaching for the bottle, the spoon, the toy, your mother’s hand…this is practiced many times a day. If everyone had as much practice singing the pitches they hear, ‘tone deafness’ would barely exist.

In order for the human voice to copy certain pitches, the larynx has to perform several reasonably complex actions. It descends slightly on low notes and lifts slightly on high notes. If you hold onto your larynx very gently whilst singing you will feel it for yourself. The higher the note the more the thyroid cartilage (or Adams apple) has to tilt posteriorly in order to stretch out the vocal fold mass and thin out the vocal folds in order to facilitate the making of higher pitches. If you look at the strings on a guitar, the lower strings are thicker and the higher strings are thinner. Similarly, the human voice has to have a thinner vocal fold mass meeting for higher pitches. The tilt of the thyroid cartilage also happens when we cry. If you listen to classical singers the ‘sob quality’ in the voice is quite apparent. When dealing with people who have ‘taught’ themselves not to cry, it is extremely difficult to get them to tilt. When you do manage to show them how to do it, they often cry for weeks. They cry until everything they needed to cry about is out. A box of tissues on the piano is essential. I order them in bulk. And as embarrassing as it is, I remind clients that it is better out than in. Although in my world of well established and stubborn introversion I often feel a problem shared is a problem doubled, this is different. It is not prompted by communication in words. The simple act of tilting ones thyroid cartilage can make a person cry – if they have something to cry about. In my work with businessmen, politicians and lawyers, the problem of pitching high notes due to the inability to ‘tilt’ is ubiquitous.

There is another very simple factor influencing the trouble with high notes. Not only does the larynx have to lift and tilt, the vocal folds are also vibrating incredibly fast. On a middle C there are roughly 240 closures of the vocal folds a second. On a high C this increases to about 1046 closures a second. The folds are very small. If they are to meet this many times a second, controlling the breath is vastly important. If too much breath is pushing through the vocal folds the singer will ‘crack’. This is simply the vocal fold blowing apart from too much air being pushed through them. Embarrassing but not damaging. Avoiding this is what ‘supporting’ the voice is all about. Controlling airflow takes practice. Many singing teachers talk about the diaphragm, Yes the diaphragm is involved. The problem is that we cannot give it instructions as there are no proprioceptors or nerve endings in it. Like the heart, the diaphragm is an entirely involuntary muscle. Try telling your heart what to do. It ain’t gonna work. Sorry folks, I know I am probably calling into question years of work with singing teachers and choir masters, but if you want to learn to control your airflow barking at your diaphragm simply won’t cut it. Nor will breathing from your womb, your uterus or your stomach. I have heard all these and more unmentionable body parts more times than I care to mention. But we simply have no lungs down there. The reason we need to release our lower abdominal muscles when breathing in is that this allows the lungs to expand downwards and sideways at the bottom part, which is roughly under your floating ribs.

Another detail which can affect the business of being in tune is the soft palate. This is the soft bit at the back of the roof of your mouth. When you have jaw and tongue root tension the soft palate, which contains two muscles but not many nerve endings, finds it hard to lift. Every tone has within it many tones. This is called the harmonic series. Great voices tend to have fabulously athletic, lifted and firm soft palates whilst singing. It is a bit like the Dome of St Paul’s in professional singers. This means that all the top overtones are enhanced and the voice has a great ‘spin’. Similar to a cello or guitar having a solid and rounded body for the sound waves to bounce off against. In untrained voices, and especially those with nasal accents (South Londoners take note), the palate tends to be a bit lazy. This can mean that even if the pitch you are singing is technically in tune, it sounds flat as it is coming through your nose.

There is a lot of technical information involved in singing. I personally find it fascinating. To most it is probably soporific. However singing and getting better at it is exactly like going to the gym. Can everybody be a world-class singer? No they cannot. Can everyone improve their singing? Yes they can! However this takes time and commitment. It means going to a piano or a keyboard app and copying pitches for 5-10 minutes every day. It means singing along to the radio whenever possible. It means ignore all those around you telling you how terrible you sound and practicing anyway. That is the problem with singing. People hear you and they judge it. And they comment. If you have not gone running for a few years and run your first 400 metres do you have anything to defend? No you do not. If you have never hurdled and you try it and knock down a few bars is this shameful? No it is not. And yet when we sing, everyone presumes to be an expert and to have the right to judge.

If you want to improve your singing and your pitching, you simply need to do more of it. This even applies to professional singers. Out of practice professional singers can sound absolutely awful. They are not vocally fit. It will be much quicker for them to get back to their former glory. But is is like a professional athlete who has not trained for a while. And if you want to take it to another level go to a good vocal coach. Singing is very personal. I cannot recount how many people have a hidden shame to do with their voices and someone telling them how bad they are. Criticism is handed out freely, often jokingly. Yet it leaves a trail of destruction. Not intentional. But nonetheless powerful. Enough to stop someone from wanting to sing or try to sing for the rest of their lives, yet with a hidden yearning. Wishing they could. Well you can. You just have to allow yourself to be bad for a while. And come out the other end.