I always wanted to play an instrument but ever since I was a kid I was told by my parents I was tone deaf, mostly because I have a terrible singing voice.

Now what I have read is that when your tone deaf you can not distinguish between two pitches but, whenever I hear music I can clearly hear the different notes or chords. If you play me a C chord and a D chord I could not say what chords where playing but I could tell you the D is higher.

So is there a possibility I could learn relative pitch (which I read is the one necessary to play by ear) or am I deluding my self and I am just tone deaf?

  • Chris, I guess from the question that you feel the need to play an instrument rather than sing (badly or otherwise !!) If so , a keyboard or piano will be advantageous over most other instruments, as it's laid out graphically : you go one way for up, other for down. The gaps between the different notes are fairly static, so you can see as well as hear the intervals, which will help you understand how one note or chord is related physically to another.I've tried to keep this fairly non-technical.
    – Tim
    Commented May 26, 2013 at 19:40
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    I don't know much about the physiology of tone-recognition and tone-matching, so take this with a grain of salt. As a musician and teacher, I've met some people who have an extremely difficult time distinguishing, for instance, between major and minor chords or between different (but somewhat similar) melodies. I've typically found, however, that practice does improve tonal hearing. So I'm not sure I believe in total tone-deafness, though if it does exist it's a great tragedy. If you can tell that D's are higher than C's, then I'm confident that with work you'll learn to play by ear. Commented May 27, 2013 at 4:26
  • Your parents did you a disservice (in more ways than one: first and foremost by being discouraging and weakening confidence). Whether or not someone can sing nicely is not an indication of "tone deafness". The test is whether the subject can recognize tones and melodies, not (re)produce them.
    – Kaz
    Commented Jun 3, 2013 at 7:10

2 Answers 2


There is a large difference between tone deafness and an undeveloped voice. Unless your parents are musicians, comments like that can be hurtful and can stifle musical exploration and creativity.

Tone deafness is actually quite serious and is as it suggests - an inability to distinguish between certain sounds. This is akin to color-blindness, where a person may be unable to see a red object if it is resting in some green grass.

Tone deafness has nothing to do with the timbre or quality of your voice. If you are musically untrained, you would be expected to have an aspirate (breathy) sound with a range of about an octave total. Just because you may not sound "good" initially has no relevance as to how your voice would sound if you were given a little information, some encouragement, and some practice.

In a strictly technical sense, Perfect Pitch is the ability to match a given pitch, not the ability to reproduce any pitch without external suggestion as so many ascribe. The latter definition more correctly applies to the term "Absolute Pitch", which has not yet gained universal acceptance. If you are able to differentiate between two notes and can tell which is higher / lower, then you are not tone deaf.

Relative pitch is being able to identify and reproduce a given note within the context of another given note or chord. If you were to think about it in terms of color, you would say: "I know this color is blue because that color is red.

People with perfect pitch would be able to give you the color blue if you gave them the color blue.

Alternatively, people with "absolute pitch" do not need to compare colors to know what they are, nor to do they need to be dictated. They would be able to create the color blue with no external reference. This is akin to the way most people experience color - they just identify it. Relative, perfect, and absolute pitch do not need to be mysteries as so many believe, and I maintain that the last of those three can be taught.

But, I must now digress as this subject can quickly lead into tangents and unwarranted discussion.

Having a "terrible singing voice" stems from what I referenced earlier: being untrained in creating efficient vocal production. Learning some simple techniques and vocal development exercises will help you not only use your air more efficiently, but begin developing fine coordination of your vocal folds.

Many famous musicians - from composers and performers to conductors, all have fantastic ears but horrible singing voices. Listen to Bernstein sing through The Rite of Spring, or Keith Jarrett sing...all the time. Terrible. Both fantastic musicians and were clearly not tone deaf.

BOTTOM LINE: Tone deafness and voice timbre are completely unrelated. Mechanics of vocal production can be easily taught. Get out there and start singin'!

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    Great response! So training in relative pitch would help me hear how big of a distance one note is from a another. Are there any courses or exercises you could suggest in order to develop my relative pitch
    – Chris
    Commented May 26, 2013 at 8:39
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    @ShawnStrickland - As I implied in my answer, I agree that there are debatable perceptions of perfect pitch definition. I maintain that everyone has the potential to develop auditory skills, but my extended thoughts on the matter are not pertinent to the question, so I digressed. And again, I must digress. :) Commented May 26, 2013 at 18:51
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    @Chris - Thank you, I am glad you found my answer informative. It is important to not to try and segregate "relative" pitch training with "perfect pitch" training, because the whole thing is silly. Any / all ear training combined with voice lessons will definitely help you. Generally I do not recommend websites for aural skills as I honestly find them ineffective. Do yourself a favor, get a book on sight-singing, and sing through it cover to cover. Learn chromatic fixed and movable "do", learn to sing in modes, and learn to audiate before externalizing, and you'll be golden. Commented May 26, 2013 at 18:55
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    The tool suggestion for aural skills is just that. It's not musical and if you look at the intervals played in a broad sense, it makes no musical sense at all. But it does allow you to practice identifying a perfect fifth (or whatever interval, scale, or arpeggio...) so much so that you are able to sing it alone and have that musical jump down cold. It will not make your voice better, and it will not teach you to compose beautiful melodies. But when you hear them, either in your head or the world; it will allow you to notate them without reference (then transpose to what key you need).
    – user6164
    Commented May 26, 2013 at 19:05
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    @ShawnStrickland - I should perhaps amend my comment in that I agree that websites can be helpful with respect to identification and transcription of intervals - externalization. However, I should clarify that training in audiation is also important, which is more toward what my original comment was suggesting. My apologies for the confusion. Commented May 26, 2013 at 19:13

I think your parents were trying to find an excuse not to get you some instrument lessons and came up with a poor excuse. It appears that a lot of people tell someone that they are tone deaf when what they really mean is that the person can't sing. Lots of people can't sing very well that is why there are singing teachers.

I would suggest that you find an instrument that you like and have a go at playing it.

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