Can the tone deaf learn to sing?

By Megan Lane
BBC News Magazine


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.

"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.

"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.

"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.

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