/, Rubrics, Self-Selected, Sight-Reading, Vocal Technique/“Tone-Deaf” is an Excuse….not a Diagnosis

“Tone-Deaf” is an Excuse….not a Diagnosis

“Tone-Deaf” is an Excuse….not a Diagnosis…..and I blame the person who makes the diagnosis.

Anyone can learn to sing. If a person can speak, they should be able to learn to sing. All speech is pitched and most people speak using a range of pitches; the concept of varied pitches in speech is quite similar to the concept of singing varied pitches.

As for what singers hear, this is something that could take time to develop in some people; it may not come naturally to some, but it is highly unlikely that someone cannot learn how to hear basic pitch differentiation. Any person who can differentiate a high pitch from a low pitch is clearly not tone-deaf.

Speaking, Piano-Matching & Pitch-Matching

If the piano can match a perceived “tone-deaf” singer’s natural speaking pitch (which will happen 100% of the time), and then the singer joins the piano either up or down by a step, it is clear the singer is not tone-deaf.

Should there be a perceived “tone-deaf” singer who is truly limited to only one pitch, the next step would be developing proper breath support and/or trying to get the singer to move off of that one pitch by either ascending or descending. If that didn’t work, I would create different sounds throughout my vocal range, including falsetto, and ask the singer to mimic them; the primary goal would be to get them off of their one pitch, not necessarily to mimic my actual pitch.

A singer who is stuck in a limited range or on just one pitch may need a completely different register to jump into, in order to re-calibrate their voice. It’s also possible a singer may speak in a register that offers no flexibility; if this is the case, they may need to find a different area in their voice to speak in order to improve their singing voice, and their vocal health overall. Frequently, it’s an issue of a singing speaking in a range that is too low for their voice.


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Pitch-Matching Is Not a “Yes” or “No” Skill

Contrary to societal belief and the belief of many choral directors, pitch-matching is not a “yes” or “no” skill. I have read numerous comments in Facebook threads from choral directors who believe they have a certain percentage of “tone-deaf students, and cite scientific studies that validate their claims.

Many of us have encountered adults, maybe even parents of our students, who have shared their personal “tone-deaf” story with us, similar to this one: “When I was in elementary school, I was so tone-deaf that Mrs. Smith, my chorus teacher, told me to mouth the words at the concert.”

In my 21 years of teaching at the same school, accepting any student interested in singing, I have yet to encounter a student who couldn’t match pitch at some level within a few brief one-on-one lessons. Any student who has completed one year in my choir was able to demonstrate competence in pitch-matching.

Matching Pitch is the first required skill within the Sight-Singing Developmental Rubric; this rubric itself first offers the diagnosis of each student’s current skill level, and then shows the subsequent steps needed to attain competence in each prerequisite.


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Here are the 5 fundamental steps for pitch-matching

(while these steps are consistent with the Pitch Matching Rubric, they are overly generalized here to present a starting point) 

STEP 1. Singer cannot match any pitch
STEP 2. Singer can only match pitch within a very small range of notes and/or only in their chest voice and/or no falsetto. 
STEP 3. Singer can match pitch but struggles to find pitches when switching registers or any sort of leap (low/mid/high range)
STEP 4. Singer can match pitch but gets stuck going through their break
STEP 5. Singer will master this skill

If we view pitch-matching as a tangible skill instead of a permanent diagnosis that cannot be overcome, we will actually be able to train all students to be able to match pitch. Without developing this skill, they will not be able to hold their part, hence being incorrectly called “tone-deaf”.

The weakest students I’ve encountered began at Level 1 of the Pitch-Matching Rubric and ended the year somewhere between Level 3 and Level 4. These students would have appeared to fit the bill as “tone-deaf”, but that diagnosis would have reaffirmed the limiting belief that  “all or nothing” is the way to view this skill. The fact is that there are tangible steps in developing this skill,  just as there are steps to singing a scale in tune, developing the ear, labeling pitches on a staff and understanding rhythm.

Describing each Step of the Pitch-Matching Process

The 5 tangible steps to pitch-matching are part of a rubric that I created called the Sight-Singing Developmental Rubric; while the  Sight-Singing Developmental Rubric is intended for developing the fundamental musical skills to be able to sight-sing, it is first and foremost the prerequisite to becoming a competent singer. The Pitch-Matching Rubric is step one of that process. While each step of the process is described below, the rubric itself breaks down the skills in each step and frames them in a positive way in order to encourage success for each singer.


The Best Ear-Training Exercise You Will Ever Use


STEP 1. Singer cannot match pitch.

When this happens, we must find their pitch on their piano. Next we ascend (or descend) by one step, and see if they can repeat our new note. If they can’t, it’s usually due to a lack of breath support; we need to ensure they are supporting their sound by having them cough (with their hands just below their sternum) as they feel their solar plexus pop out, followed by staccato sounds on a spoken pitch and then on one specific pitch. Whenever they lose the pitch, we need to return them to their starting pitch and start again.

I have never had a singer who was unable to move up or down by one step from their “comfort” note after engaging their solar plexus.

STEP 2. Singer can only match pitch in a very small range of notes and/or only in their chest voice and possibly no falsetto. 

This is a way more complex issue as it deals with varying levels of vocal technique. If singers don’t have access to both their chest voice and their falsetto (or head tone), they can really struggle to gain flexibility. Their soft palate frequently ends up stuck and their larynx ends up tight, and; as a result, they are limited with such a small vocal range that unless we sing in their limited comfort area, they may be unable to match pitch.  There are so many ways to improve this limitation: sighs, lip trills, and hums are a good starting point. A student could appear to be “tone-deaf”, or unable to deviate beyond their comfort note until they gain some flexibility in their voice.


Alternative Concert Assignment – what to do when they miss the concert


STEP 3. Singer matches pitch but struggles to find pitch when switching registers (low/mid/high range)

Switching registers can be difficult for beginning singers. If they jump from one vocal area to another, they could appear to not have an ear, but it’s a just a technical mirage. Once they coordinate their muscles by jumping back and forth between registers, they will be no longer lose their pitch. This has a lot to do with gaining flexibility specifically of the soft palate through ways similar to yodeling; flipping between registers is the key to flexibility throughout the middle of their voice.

STEP 4. Singer can match pitch but gets stuck going through their break

If a singer sirens or sighs and has a significant hole in their voice, it is likely they will get stuck as they move through their voice. This break creates a divide in their voice; while they may effectively be able to navigate back and forth between two different areas of their voice, their inability to connect the two could lead to pitch-matching issues. The best way to work through this issue is by using sighs and sirens, descending scale-patterns, and anything else where the singer can be mindful of both their vocal placement and breath support. Descending first is almost always a better approach than ascending.

STEP 5. Singer will master this skill

Singer can match any pitch within their developed voice range. Any two pitches that are given, no matter the leap or registration, they can quickly and accurately sing. They can sigh and siren throughout their entire voice without any holes; this requires breath support, good tonal placement and a flexible soft palate.

If you are interested in a detailed rubric for pitch-matching, I highly recommend my Pitch-Matching Rubric. It takes the step-by-step information from this blog and puts it into positive, tangible steps for teachers and students to work together to attain.

Let’s eliminate this “tone-deaf” myth once and for all!


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Here’s a video from a Facebook Live Event that I did in the Choral Clarity Facebook Group on this topic. It’s terrible cinematic quality but I can assure you there’s some great information.

By | 2018-11-11T17:37:56+00:00 November 4th, 2018|Assessment, Rubrics, Self-Selected, Sight-Reading, Vocal Technique|

About the Author:

Adam Paltrowitz is a master educator, composer, conductor, and clinician. During his 20-year tenure as the Director of Choral Activities at Plainview-Old Bethpage John F. Kennedy High School in New York, his groups have toured throughout Europe, Canada, and the United States. He also has pioneered a philosophy that every student is a soloist. Adam's choral program has also gained great acclaim for the cultivation of eight student-run a-cappella ensembles; some of these ensembles have performed on national and local television programs. His compositions and arrangements have been performed by choirs around the world. Adam earned his B.S. in music education from New York University, M.A. in vocal pedagogy from Columbia University - Teacher's College, and Ed.M. choral conducting from Columbia University - Teacher's College. ​Adam resides in Manhattan with his wife, Blair Goldberg, a professional Broadway actress, and their daughter, Lyla.

One Comment

  1. Jared November 19, 2018 at 12:20 am - Reply

    I like the concept of looking at this a skill to be developed, rather than a gift that you either have or do not have. And thanks for the helpful suggestions for concrete ways to develop and assess this skill.

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