The Truth About Being "Tone Deaf"

New research dispels the myth that people are just born with beautiful voices.

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If you can teach yourself to play an instrument, you can probably teach yourself to carry a tune, at least according to a new study published in the journal Music Perception. Lead researcher Steven Demorest, a professor at Northwestern’s Bienen School of Music, says having a good voice seems to be less about natural ability than it is about practice.



The study isolated three groups of people—kindergarteners, sixth graders, and college students—and tested whether or not they could sing on key. Researchers found measurable improvement between kindergarten and sixth grade, likely because the students had access to regular music practice through band, choir, or music class. However, college-aged participants performed at the same level as the kindergarteners, likely because they hadn’t practiced in a very long time.

Have you ever been told that you’re tone deaf? That plays a role in ability, too. Children who have been criticized with that phrase are deterred from attempting to engage and sing as they grow.

There are, of course, those rare people with “perfect pitch”—the ability to sing any note without hearing it first. Researchers think that particular skill might be genetic, but Demorest’s research suggests that anyone can learn to sing. He is working to develop an online program that actually determines how accurate a singer is—since no reliable measure currently exists. With this tool, called the Seattle Singing Accuracy Profile (SSAP), researchers can better determine what causes inaccurate singing, and help provide resources so all children—even those perceived as “tone deaf”—can have the opportunity to be involved in music.

“Everyone should be able to have music as a part of their life,” Demorest said in a statement. “It’s OK to select out of it, but it should be by choice, rather than because you think you don’t have ‘talent.’ And if at any point in life you decide to become more engaged, you can be.”