I'm incredibly depressed. I have always wanted to be a musician and for the last 5 years I have learned various scales, chords in each key in various positions up and down the neck of the guitar and spent a lot of money on lessons and wondered why I was not progressing as others have. I thought first of all it was because I was playing poor instruments so bought great guitars and the same, not progressing.

Recently I was chatting with a friend and he asked me why I always bent a note up until it was 'too sharp sounding' as opposed to just bending it up to pitch (I am playing in the Blues genre so it's a whole-tone bend) and I replied "because it's the only way I can differentiate the two distinct sounds." That's when it hit me. Anything played within a 3 fret radius sounds identical.

I then realised the same for chords, a G major chord sounds the same as an F major chord and also the same as the A major chord next to it whereas I can discern an F major chord from the A major. However I cannot tell you which is higher without knowing, all I can say is that tonally it sounds different. A single note played on say the first fret, the second and third all sound the same whereas at the fourth fret it sounds different but again I couldn't say if it was higher or lower.

My guitar teacher has taught me how to find the chords for a song I'm hearing and I understand the theory behind it. I slide my finger up to the fretted note I hear the bass player play and I know what chord is being played but most of what I hear a bass player play is the same so I am never able to play along to a song I hear, I always have to make a note of the song then go and find the chords online and then can play along fine.

When playing with others I can almost always work out what key the song is in but apart from playing that initial chord I am stumped. I have to just wait for that chord to come round again and then strum it. I have to know what all the chords are and then I'm fine but if the other players decide to jam on out then I am lost because I no longer have a frame of reference other than that initial chord.

I can tell that a note played 4 frets along or further is tonally different than the initial one but for closely spaced notes they all sound the same and having put in 2 hours+ a day for 5 years hasn't trained my ears at all. I can also not discern when my guitar is in tune or slightly out of tune, it has to be wildly out of tune for me to notice.

I cannot sing and even my spoken voice is flat so I have learned to punctuate what I say, to use pauses and to change the volume of what I say because I lack pitch and cadence. Not badly and very rarely is it picked up on because I'm reasonably intelligent however at school it was picked up quite a lot so I was never asked to narrate or read a passage from a book because of the 'flatness' of it. The strange thing is, I can tell when someone else is singing flat.

Any ideas folks?

  • 5
    If all else fails, you might consider an instrument where the fine tuning of the pitch created is not under your control, such as most keyboard instruments. Playing a guitar requires you to fine-tune the pitch with your fingers (this is part of where some of the expressiveness comes from); playing (say) a piano requires that you press the right keys with the correct technique and timing. The musicality is in the phrasing and dynamic choices. There are some edge cases, note blending and such, but the fundamental pitch is set by the instrument. Commented Jun 10, 2014 at 9:27
  • 1
    Do you often have trouble hearing inflections in questions asked by other people or other instances? (eg when people inflect up at the end of the sentence to indicate a question) If not, then you aren't tone deaf
    – TylerH
    Commented Jun 10, 2014 at 14:05
  • 3
    A lot of people who think they are tone deaf arn't, hence a lot of the advice. But some actually are (monotone speech being a common indicator) and no amount of training will make an improvement for them. Being a musician takes some talent as well as practice, it might be realistic to consider that you might not be one. Its a bad move to think of it as time invested, if you enjoy playing, keep on enjoying it, if you don't then give it a rest perhaps?
    – JamesRyan
    Commented Jun 10, 2014 at 15:23
  • Ironically, I read your whole question imagining a flat monotone voice.
    – user12095
    Commented Jun 10, 2014 at 18:33

3 Answers 3


I strongly suspect that practicing singing (I know, you said you can't, but trust me on this) will be the best possible thing for you. Unlike playing an instrument, singing removes all the extraneous technical baggage that sits between your mental musical intuition and the physical production of a musical sound, so its the most direct way to train your mind to recognize pitches.

If you have a friend who can sing and is willing to work with you, you may find this suggestion interesting: http://listeningbookaudio.com/tonedeaf.htm

This website will test you to see if you are tone deaf: tonedeaftest.com

Assuming you aren't, you'll eventually want to do some form of ear training, but I'm not sure if you're quite ready for that yet. I'm just saying it now because I'm sure other answers will mention it, and because that will be the next step. At this point, though, it would be a bit like asking a color-blind person to learn color matching. You probably need to improve recognizing individual pitches before learning to recognize intervals. (and by "recognize", I mean "be able to distinguish", not "be able to name" -- very few people have the ability to actually name an individual pitch in isolation).


No worries. Here are some things to help you get a better understanding of where your ears are at and how your brain processes it.

DISCLAIMER: I am not a physician or am I qualified to recommend specialists.

First thing you should do is visit an audiologist and get some testing done so that you have a base line reference to how you perceive sound vs. what is the norm. The audiologist may find something that could use attention and may recommend a speech-language pathologist to assist. Likewise, your family physician may be able to recommend other experts as well.

Have you ever had any damage to your ears while growing up, artifacts from a childhood bout with anything fever related, or anything that might of inflamed sinus, jaw, or ears? Any thing like this might be useful information for your health care giver.

Until you get some real scientific data from professional heath care folks you won't really know how to proceed as per therapy or treatment.

In the meantime, I recommend practicing listening, at low volumes and at a whisper.

Two things you might want to work on are discerning pitch and rhythm, don't worry so much about the theory part right now, just wrap your ears around basic changes at low volumes.

Try doing a sound journal to increase your conscious awareness and comprehension of sound.

Here is an exercise. Find a quiet place, close your eyes (this will decrease the amount of air you will need as you shutdown the sight processing portion of the brain), begin to record every sound you hear. E.G., your breathing, a light breeze over your arm, the wind through the trees, the wind through the distant trees, a bird (what kind of bird? seagull, raven, robin?), jet passing far above, a car driving by, a train horn far away, and so on and try this as reps. Make a list of 20 things (could take about 5 to 10 minutes), take a break for 5 minutes, start over, another list. Do a 30 minute session every two days, for a week. If you like it do more, if it helps do this for the rest of your life.

This is in part based on something I read about many years ago by a wonderful and enchanting composer, Pauline Oliveros. Since then she has progressed and shaped a whole curriculum on "Deep Listening".




One last note. Don't give up. If you truly have a passion and love for music, you will find a way. Remember there are many musicians including celebrated ones that have disabilities including deafness. Don't forget Beethoven was nearly completely deaf toward the end of his life.

"...at the end of the premiere of his Ninth Symphony in 1824, he had to be turned around to see the tumultuous applause of the audience because he could not hear it nor the orchestra."

source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ludwig_van_Beethoven


First off, there is no reason to give up music just because you can’t tell pitches apart. It’s a mountain of a problem, but not impossible. Filzilla gave some very good suggestions for where to start. Here’s a few more for after you’ve gotten a baseline from the audiologist.

I’ll add the suggestion of voice games. Singing has the advantage that it is very physical, and with voice games, you don't really need to be able to sing more than one note. With your voice, you can literally feel where the vibration is centered in your body even if you have trouble hearing the pitch. Here's the most basic one I know.

Grab someone you’re close to who doesn’t mind doing weird things. Stand a foot apart, and one person sing a note (loudly). The second person tries to match the note. At this distance, the note becomes a whole body experience, and even people who normally have trouble finding notes can often succeed. If you can learn to do this, try one person varying the note, and the other trying to follow along.

See if you can find a teacher who specializes in helping people learn to differentiate pitch. Maybe look for voice teachers who love working with beginners, or someone who usually works with little kids and music.

If all else fails, or you decide that you’d rather go around the mountain than fight your way over it, consider taking up percussion. It would let you keep on doing music, and you’d be at very little disadvantage over other musicians. Plus there always seem to be 10 excellent guitar players for every good drummer.

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