Some weeks ago, as I was surfing the internet, I stumbled upon this phrase on Facebook ……….may you not have a very committed chorister(s) who is/are tone deaf! “Na gbege ooo” – meaning it becomes a BIG PROBLEM to have a committed chorister who is tone-deaf.

Hmm! This got me wallowing in deep thought. Why can’t they be there? Why is it also perceived as a BIG PROBLEM? Firstly, are choristers or singers who are supposedly tone-deaf not humans? Is it really true that they do not have any significant role(s) to play in the choir?

If perhaps they are already part of the choir, what should be done to them – kick them out? Does the success of a choir lie completely on the ability to sing, perform music only and perhaps being 100% musically inclined? Can we confidently say that those who can sing, appreciate and contribute substantially; especially musically, are all that make a successful choir? 

In my years in choir and interacting with choirs and singers, I have heard and witnessed in many cases, choristers who are tone-deaf being stigmatized, treated with some disdain and technically ostracized; consequently, thwarting their productivity in other areas. It is necessary to state here that being tone-deaf (can’t differentiate notes) is not the same as being deaf (can’t hear at all).

The narrative commonly accepted is that it is easier for most people to say that they are not needed in the choir; that they cannot sing, that they drag the choir back sometimes – that they have no place or business singing.

The term “tone-deafness” also technically known as amusia is a disorder characterized by failure to recognize familiar tunes to distinguish one tune from another – simply put, singers who cannot tell the difference between notes or sounds. When they hear the notes do, re, mi, fa, sol, la, ti, they can’t differentiate and repeat them. This is what is expressed, voiced or manifested as the frequent “offkey” you hear – going off or flat. Amusia may be present from birth (congenital) or develop as a result of injury (acquired). Tone-deaf individuals vary widely in their auditory processing functions as well as singing abilities.

Similarly, one other congenital disorder rarely talked about is beat deafness – the inability of people to synchronize their body to sound they hear. They lack the ability to identify, hear or follow a beat in a piece of music – no sense of rhythm. 

No doubt, when it comes to ascertaining one’s musicianship, especially if such a person is being considered to join the choir, sense of tonality is one of the major criteria for admissibility. This post will redress the misconception and perception on how tone and beat deaf choristers are treated, how to manage and make the best of other skills they have without compromising the music standards especially if they got on the team before the ascension of the choir director. Amazingly, tone or beat deaf singers or choristers may also be very intelligent and resourceful. Being intelligent has nothing to do with tone-deafness.

Have you been told you are tone deaf? Do you feel awful …..I am not a neurologist, a clinician or audiologist. But one thing is clear, there are roles people who are perceived as tone and beat deaf can play in the choir. 

In my book “the church choir exam”, I explored in details the entire framework and structural anatomy of choir management; critically examining practical issues and challenging stakeholders face, and proffering some tailormade solutions toward establishing a smooth operation devoid of chaos. The book also tries to examine and explore how different people (choristers) with their skills can complement each other, the choir and still feel fulfilled.

More often than not, we equate the occasional inability of singers to identify and interpret (pronouncing by hearing) notes or sound with being tone-deaf while in fact, it’s a case of training and exercise. Choir directors should not give up so early should they find themselves with choristers who are presumed tone and beat deaf.

In any case, most of what we term as being tone-deaf is partial tone-deafness. Please understand that being tone deaf is at different stages. The vast majority of people who believe they are tone deaf are actually not. They can enjoy music, tell notes apart (but not always). They only lack music training. Singers who are perceived as tone-deaf are not dull people; it’s only a disorder that affects and control music.

Given the circumstances surrounding certain tonal situations, sense of tonality is one major criterion for effective music performance. A chorister or singer is as good as his or her ears. To let you know how important sense of tonality is, it has ruined and ended great singers and composers’ career.

Choristers who suffer from amusia usually can’t sing very well. Does this mean then that they can’t be in the choir? Some experts believe that if one can pass a basic pitch sensitivity test, such a tone problem can be cured.

A chorister who is tone-deaf or supposedly tone or beat deaf can and should still be able to function in the choir. Below, I have broken into three categories the different people who play different roles and where I believe choristers who are tone and beat deaf should serve. If you study an ideal choir management structure or formation, not everyone will take a solo, play the musical instrument, conduct, etc. that been agreed, why so much pressure and silent stigmatization on being tone-deaf.  

Diagram from the book “The church choir exam”

From the above diagram, the choir has been compartmentalized into three sections; which also caters to choristers who are perceived as tone and beat deaf. Beyond the skills in singing and dynamic “vocal oratory”, there are other back-end-behind-the-scene roles choristers who are not musically fit can still fit or play – more like some administrative roles. These administrative roles are subject to choir type and the peculiarity of your environment, assembly and choristers. So, create what works for you!

It also may interest you to know that tone and beat deaf choristers are not the only people who may be alienated from singing or music. Some people love music and love to hear people sing, and do not like to sing and can’t sing. These set of people are also in the choir.

Choir directors should learn to assign other roles not tone or beat-based to choristers who have challenges in those areas. Asides singing which many believe is the only function of the choir, there are many more roles and functions in the choir.


There are several tone exercises and test as to ascertain the status of one’s auditory strength musically. Please understand that these tests vary. There are tests to ascertain the general auditory status which examines partial or complete deafness. But the test I am referring to here is the test or exercise for tone (sound) and beat (rhythm). 

Being unable to pass these tests, may not be an indication that one is tone or beat deaf. It is usually recommended that a qualified person (audiologist) certifies this position. Otherwise, one may go about thinking he or she is tone or beat deaf when in actual sense, it’s a musical deficiency of tone or sound which an exercise or training can correct.

These are two different perspectives and situations that require diverse approaches. The first (tone deafness) being a state of not recognizing and differentiating sound, while the second (partial tone-deafness) where a person can differentiate and recognize sound but with occasional lapses. 

Interestingly, even those who can interpret, recognize, follow beat and sound in music – musically proficient, tend to occasionally miss beats and go off. So, hey cheer up! You may not be tone or beat deaf. Choir directors should understand this, and not act as the last resort to declaring or pronouncing choristers’ tone or beat deaf.

Ludwig Van Beethoven the eponymous classical music composer had his music career truncated shortly after he went completely deaf. Though the cause of the deafness is unknown. This further underscores the importance and extent of the role of the ears in music and singing.

The next time you are auditioning, be sure you can differentiate between these two states of disorder – acute and partial deafness.

If choir directors are too busy or occupied to train choristers who they perceive are partially tone-deaf, they should enrol them on some tonal exercises and training. While this happens, they should be made to serve administratively. Those who work behind the scene or at limelight are all actively participating. None is greater than the other especially where the success of the choir is concerned. 

Lawrence Dieyi

Lawrence Dieyi

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