This is my response to the question, “If someone says he is tone-deaf or can’t carry a tune, is there any way to encourage him or teach him otherwise?”

Anytime we respond to someone who says they are tone deaf or can’t carry a tune, we should use language very carefully. For starters, very few people are actually tone deaf. A truly tone-deaf person is incapable of hearing the difference between pitches. If you would sing two different pitches, one right after the other, a tone-deaf person couldn’t tell whether the pitches were the same or different. That’s not a problem for most people. So the first thing to do for someone claiming to be tone deaf is to remove that label from them. They are not deficient. They simply did not receive the musical training or exposure necessary to develop pitch discrimination skills at a young age.

After removing the tone-deaf label, we should let them know that they absolutely can improve their ability to sing pitches accurately. There are no easy or quick fixes, but improvement is possible with steady, consistent ear training. They should have a patient, kind, and musically apt person work with them one on one first, then with a small group. They should learn what it feels like to sing in unison. The sensation of matching a single, unison pitch is the foundation for learning to match a larger melody line and eventually a harmony line.

So the short answer to the question is yes. Remove labels, use encouraging words, and help them find someone with a good ear who can patiently and consistently work with them. In a group setting, surround them with people who are accurately singing the same part and encourage them to listen and join in. Value their voices even when they don’t match the same pitch and encourage them when you hear progress.

This article first appeared on the Shenandoah Christian Music Camp website here.