There are tons of myths about talent, tone-deafness, musicality, and learning – you probably heard them before.
“I can’t sing, I’m tone-deaf.”
“Musicality is something you either have or you don’t.”
“He was musical since he was born, but his sister, she could never sing in tune.”
“Music is easy for you because you have an innate talent. I don’t have that.”
I’m here to tell you that a) most of the myths surrounding musicality and tone-deafness have been disproved, and b) even if they were true, they needn’t affect your decision to learn to play music. Even if you weren’t a musical child, you can become a musical adult and play in a rock band, as I detail in this blog and in my book.
The musicality myth
First of all, let’s talk about amusia, which is the inability to detect changes in pitch. Up to 4% of the population suffers from this condition[i], much lower than the number of people who claim to be “tone deaf”.
An individual can be said to have amusia if she can’t hum an easy, familiar tune even if she has normal audiometry and average intellectual and memory skills. Amusia is often tested by playing two pitches to a person and asking them to determine whether the pitches are different or the same. If the person fails to recognize two different pitches which the average human can detect, they are said to be suffering from amusia.
If you suspect that you have amusia, you can take a free online test to find out[ii]. Currently, there is no known cure for amusia, but the good news is that other than singing (which can be hard with amusia), you still can (and should) play an instrument! Here’s how:
- Play the drums – there are amazing benefits to becoming a drummer and I’ll get to them in this blog. One benefit is that even as drum kits vary in pitch, distinguishing different pitches is not required for drumming. You have the kick, the snare, the toms, the hats – each one produces a different sound, and pitch is rarely the main issue. You should have no problem drumming with amusia. And yes, a sense of rhythm can be trained.
- Memorize – most beginner and intermediate musicians play chords, solos, and riffs by memorizing sequences and finger movements (more experienced musicians develop a mind-body connection, their fingers find their way to the right position according to the pitch they want to play. That is how they can improvise music in real-time). If you can memorize, you can play, even if you don’t hear a distinct difference between the notes you are playing. I can hear the difference between pitches, but I still memorize everything I play (and I’ve been playing for 7 years).
If you think of yourself as someone with a weak memory, know that this is a myth too. If you don’t suffer from diagnosed memory loss, you can improve your memory significantly, and there are simple techniques you can learn and implement right away.
You are probably familiar with the term muscle memory. If you aren’t, here is the definition:
Muscle memory is the ability to reproduce a particular movement without conscious thought, acquired as a result of frequent repetition of that movement.[iii]
In plain English, this means that the more you repeat a movement or sequence of movements, the more it becomes automatic, thus allowing you to repeat it without thinking about it. Think of the muscular complexity and coordination involved in walking or speaking – babies have to learn these skills from zero by imitation and trial and error, but for most healthy adults these two abilities don’t require conscious thought.
A lot of music skills are about muscle memory. The muscle memory of your fingers as you’re playing guitar; the muscle memory of your arms, hands, legs, and feet as you are drumming; the muscle memory of all the muscles involved in voice production in the vocal tract that enable you to speak and sing.
I’m stressing the issue of muscle memory here to explain that there is nothing magical or mystical about being able to make music. Except for the 4% diagnosed with amusia (who can still become musicians as explained above), anyone can do music. Of course, different health conditions exist, and not all of us are lucky to have functional limbs, lungs, and hearing, but most of the people who deem themselves “not musical”, “tone-deaf”, “just ain’t got the talent”, are able-bodied adults.
It doesn’t mean that it’s going to be easy, and yes, some people who started as children are going to have a head start that you won’t. But the fact that it’s not going to be easy shouldn’t deter you. Actually, hard things are healthy for you.
Seven years ago I couldn’t sing in tune, and now, for the most part, I can. Was it easy? Hell no. Was it possible (with a lot of practice)? Hell yes. To know if you can or cannot play music comes down to one question: are you willing to put in the time? If you are, you can do it.
And fear not, as it is going to be a fun ride. I love the journey, and that is what makes me stick with it. Vocal practice for me is challenging, satisfying, and therapeutic, and not just a means to an end.
I’m too old for music
It is true that those who started to play or sing at a young age started developing the relevant muscle memory much earlier than us, so singing or playing an instrument is easier for them. That shouldn’t bother us though, because we are not looking for easy things, and in future posts I will explain why.
At the moment, rest assured that there are many factors that can make adult learning more effective than child learning. I know people who learned to play music as kids and have zero interest in music as adults – some of them are even traumatized by their music teachers. I can recall a few different piano and guitar teachers I had as a child, and even though I wasn’t traumatized, for years I remained with zero motivation to practice. As an adult, I have much more perseverance and am much more motivated as I am learning to play what I like (playing what I liked was completely absent from my childhood tuition – even though I loved rock from an early age, I never played rock songs in my lessons).
As a kid, you are often dependent on parents and teachers to provide a learning environment and topics, especially if you came of age before the YouTube era. If you were a conforming kid and your parents didn’t like rock or didn’t think it was a worthy pursuit for a girl, it is unlikely that you got to learn to play rock music.
But luckily you are not a child anymore, so right now you can choose to learn to play the music you like, in the way that works best for you. If you need help getting started with music, check out my book Unleash Your Inner Rock Star – it’s a step-by-step guide to getting started playing rock music.
So, can anyone learn to play music?
I hope I convinced you that you can learn to play music. If you have amusia, play the drums. If you don’t have amusia, get your s**t together and start playing any instrument (you can still choose the drums even if you don’t have amusia, it’s a great choice actually). Don’t be taken aback by the fact that you didn’t start playing as a kid. there are many advantages to adult learning.
Have you started playing music at an old age? Would love to hear your story in the comments below!