You're not tone deaf!
If I had a dollar for every time someone told me they were tone deaf.....
Well, I'd have enough to buy myself a few lovely lattes--the nice, millennial-friendly ones with lots of whipped cream and....
I digress. The point is, a lot of people think they're tone deaf without understanding what that means.
The medical term for being tone deaf is "amusia," and affects about 4% of the population. That's not very many people!
Most of the time if you say you are "tone deaf," what you really mean is you didn't sing much when you were a kid. You may have a hard time hearing the differences between notes, or finding the right notes when you sing.
If you weren't around music much when you were younger, it can feel really weird to use your voice in a controlled manner as an adult. But don't worry: just like any skill, you can get better at it!
It's really not so hard to figure out if you have actual amusia.
If you actually have amusia, you can't tell any musical sounds from each other. You probably find music annoying and try to avoid it as you would traffic noise. You may even find it almost painful to listen to.
Most likely, this isn't you. If it sounds like it might be you, definitely consult a doctor! However, if you're subscribed to my blog (please do!), you probably like music! And guess what? You can TOTALLY learn and engage in the amateur community. There are so many options for you!
I have worked with many people who say they are tone deaf. They come to me feeling uncomfortable, insecure, even terrified to make music. Their friends tell them not to sing. They feel confined, wanting to sing but feeling like it makes things unpleasant for people around them.
If this sounds like you, or someone you know, it's time to change the story.
A little education goes a long way. Even simply realizing that singing is a skill, and skills can be improved, can put people at ease.
The voice is a series of muscles, and like any muscle it can be trained. However, the systems that control how the muscles work together are complex, so if you haven't done the base work it can take time to get everything moving together consistently.
If you're willing to put the work in, you can learn to sing.
A NOTE FOR FRIENDS AND FAMILY
Side note: if you came to this article because you think someone you know might be tone deaf... please be careful in how you talk to them! The students I've helped learn to sing often carry extreme baggage from the words of other people in their lives. Please take a moment to consider why someone doing an activity that bring them joy (singing) bothers you.
If this activity were, say, knitting, and they had never knit before, and their project came out looking awful, would you ridicule them? Would you ask them to never knit again? Would you tell them that watching them knit is painful?
Because this is what people are told. "You should never sing." "You sound like a beluga whale." "It's painful to hear you sing."
Regardless of what you hear Simon Cowell say on TV, it's never ok to say these things to someone. You have no idea of the extent of damage and hurt you cause someone when you say this.
People who don't sing "well" are just beginners in a hobby. No need to ruin it for them.
Ok, enough soapbox. /rant
WHAT CAN BE DONE?
First off, I'd invite you to check out my Discover Your Voice course, where I do a deep dive on pitch, how to determine if you can match a pitch, and practical exercises you can do to start dialing in your accuracy. This can be a great step for those who are nervous to sing in front of others! Check out my course here.
If you want live feedback, local music teachers CAN help you! If you're willing to put the work in to learn, there are techniques we can use to help you develop your ear. If you are considering reaching out to a teacher, I have a few recommendations:
Trust with a teacher is super important. Try a few different ones to see who you feel like you can be vulnerable with! A surprising amount of emotion can go into releasing the judgment you may have internalized about your abilities. It's important that your teacher works with you at your level and you feel like you can open up with them.
Set aside time to do the work. You have an entire lifetime of never using your ear with intention... it's going to take time to start training it! I like to use the analogy of going to the gym. If you've never worked out before, would you expect to bench 350lbs the first time you ever walked into a gym? No! You need to have the same expectations with music (or any new skill!), and plan your vocal "workouts" accordingly. I recommend starting by setting aside 10-15 minutes, 3x/week, and put it in your calendar.
Find a PLACE to do the work. This one is a critical discussion I have with students, and an entire module in Discover Your Voice! You need to have a judgment-free zone to practice, and you need to communicate appropriate boundaries with others in your household. I've had students who were making solid progress, but then a family member made a snide comment at dinner and the student went into a complete tailspin: "I'll never learn, I'm terrible at this, I'm quitting." You need to have a time and place where you can practice and be vulnerable, where no one is "allowed" to interrupt or make any negative comments whatsoever (IMHO if you're learning to sing, the shower is an absolute non-negotiable safe place!)
Set realistic expectations. I would recommend giving lessons at least 6 months to a year before deciding whether they are or aren't working. Sometimes progress can be slower than you want. Lessons will help, but again: you still have to put the work in! If you do I can guarantee things will improve.
Record a "before." Sometimes it feels like you plateau and aren't making any progress. It's helpful to revisit what you started from to remind yourself that yes, you are getting better! I always keep a record of the first few songs I work on with a new student and revisit them on occasion. They are always surprised at how much easier they can sing things that were hard for them! It can feel intimidating, but record yourself singing a song (even "Happy Birthday" or something short is fine) to help future you if it feels like you get stuck.
Note... if you've truly practiced, 15-30 minutes/day at least 3-5 days/week, for a year, and don't think you've improved at all... I want to talk with you!
The next time you find the words "I'm tone deaf" tumbling out of your mouth, pause a moment and consider what you really mean. Do you truly not enjoy music at all, or do are you covering up a secret internal desire to make it? I encourage you to lean into the latter... you never know what a satisfying and wonderful journey may be ahead of you!
Discover Your Voice may be exactly the next step you're looking for. It's a friendly, beginner-focused course on how to sing. We cover how the voice works, how to set up your environment and calendar for success, and all the key elements that go into sounding good. If you want to take the next step in your musical journey, head over to this link to learn more!