What does it mean to be tone deaf? Learn about amusia (the clinical name for tone deafness), and how to identity tones better
Many people think they are “tone deaf” when they struggle to sing on key, or can’t tell if another person is singing off-key. For many, being called “tone deaf” can be a very discouraging experience, and it can impact their self-confidence when performing and negatively impact their enjoyment of music. As the phrase “tone deaf” carries negative connotations, we are going to focus on growing the musical skill of identifying notes and pitches! We’ll share some information about amusia (the clinical name for tone deafness) as well as some tips to help train you to perceive musical pitches more easily!
At Hoffman Academy, we believe that this trouble identifying if music is “in tune” or not is another musical skill that can be acquired with practice. Just like children go to school to learn processes like spelling or reading aloud, learning to identify the sound of particular musical notes and match them–what musicians call “recognizing differences in pitch” and “matching pitch”, is part of what students learn in music lessons. This process, called “ear training” is a part of the Hoffman Academy curriculum, so you’ll acquire many of these skills through our lessons!
Am I tone deaf? What is amusia?
What does it mean to be tone deaf? There are some people who are physically unable to recognize differences in pitch. This experience of tone deafness is known as amusia, and it happens because the auditory processing area of the brain works differently to interpret the sounds that reach our ears. For many people with amusia, their brains organize music into sounds that are experienced as lots of noise rather than as distinct melodies. This is a permanent impairment of music perception which affects around 4% of the population. Some people are born with amusia, and some acquire the condition after a traumatic brain injury or an illness.
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Some Tips on Identifying Pitch
If you are curious to know if your ears can distinguish between pitches in a non-musical setting, you can test your pitch sensitivity here. The test plays you notes that are the same, and notes that are different, and asks you to pick which are which! By identifying which notes are the same and which notes are different, you are already training yourself to recognize different pitches!
For most people, singing on key and recognizing different notes can be learned — after all, not all musicians are born knowing how all notes relate to one another! Many young pianists and singers taking in-person lessons start their training with exercises like these, which are designed to teach them to identify distances between notes. Hearing differences in pitch is a skill that takes time and practice. You may surprise yourself with your ability to learn this skill through regular practice and specific training exercises. Here are some simple exercises to help develop your sense of pitch. As you grow in your musicianship, these exercises will help you to dictate melodies by ear!
- Start with one note in the middle of the piano. Play it once. Then play another note higher or lower. Start with big intervals. Take a moment to hear the difference. Keep going. Make them smaller. The closer they are in distance, the harder it is to tell. Really Listen!
- Once you have done this enough, have a friend “quiz” you. Face away from the piano while they play one note at a time. Your job is to identify if a pitch is lower or higher than the one played before. Tell your friend they can even play the same note twice in a row. If you get it wrong, don’t worry – keep trying! You can later challenge yourself by playing several notes in a row, and drawing the shape of the melody. If the notes go up, draw a line going up, if the notes go down, draw a line going down. If the notes go up, then down, draw it!
- Sing it yourself! You may be able to recognize pitch, but still have a hard time singing the right pitch. This isn’t being tone deaf – singing is a skill that can be learned. Let’s get comfortable with our high and low voice to make it easier to match high and low pitches! First experiment with highs and lows in your voice. Sing or speak up high like a chipmunk to see how high your voice can go. Sing or speak down low like a troll to see how low your voice can go. Then try sliding your voice up from the low troll voice to the high chipmunk voice and back down.
If you’re looking for more ear training, Hoffman Academy is a great place to start. We learn our songs by listening and singing first, then we put the songs on piano. With Mr. Hoffman, you’ll learn to identify which notes are higher and lower. Together, you will work up to listening to melodies and dictating them together, writing down which notes are higher and which are lower. Just know that, like any skill, it takes time and patience! Good luck!