Bucket with notesPlease, please tell me I can still learn to play the piano!

Okay. I will. Yes you can still learn to play the piano. It helps if you can hear chords before you play them. But there is no reason that you can’t learn to play by reading music. We’ll talk a little more about that in a minute.

Have you ever been in a situation where you’ve been asked to sing in public? Maybe it was to sing a solo in church or a school musical. Maybe it was simply to lead a small family group in singing Happy Birthday to a cousin. Most people, after hearing the weirdness of my speaking voice, don’t ask me to sing. But through the course of my life I’ve seen dozens of people in that situation. Many would refuse out of shyness or fear of singing in public. I don’t know if it is done in other parts of the U.S., but in the places I’ve lived you will often hear a person say, “I couldn’t carry a tune in a bucket!” when they don’t want to expose their under exercised singing voices to the public.

Just a little about tone deafness

You can probably guess the meaning of that tune-in-a-bucket phrase. But if you’re having trouble making the connection, it means simply, “I don’t sing on pitch too well and I’d rather not have you see or hear me embarrass myself.” They may tell you that they are tone deaf or that they have a “tin ear.” And maybe they are. Researchers at Harvard University believe that approximately five percent of the population may be tone deaf or incapable of hearing the difference between one musical pitch and another (Harvard Medical School. “Tone Deafness Explained.” ScienceDaily, 23 Aug. 2007. Web. 18 Feb. 2012). To those people, music may come across as a jumbled mess rather than a stream of melodic tones.

If just five percent of the population are clinically tone deaf, we can assume that the remaining 95% probably are not. Most people, even some of those whose singing might send you running for an exit, can hear the difference between one note and another and thus are not clinically tone deaf. They probably would not be able to tell you specifically which notes were played, but they can hear that one note is higher or lower than another. And most can tell if the notes played fit together as in pleasing chords, or if they are more bearable when played individually.

If you are among the 95% who can differentiate one note from another, you are in luck when it comes to learning to play the piano. Obviously, it is important to be able to hear when a piece is being played correctly. I’m not talking about playing correctly in the sense of a piece of music being played with the correct expression, or whether a note is played pianissimo or fortissimo, etc. I’m referring to knowing when it’s clear that wrong notes have been played. If you have that ability, you can almost certainly learn to play piano. For the person who considers herself an atrocious singer, but who still has the desire to learn to play piano, this is good news.

Tone deafness and piano playing

Technically, even a truly amusic, or tone deaf, person could learn to play piano if he did so by very carefully and intentionally reading music and playing precisely what the music indicated should be played. I personally cannot see how it would be very enjoyable or fulfilling for a person who does not have the ability to hear melodies, but it would nonetheless be possible. I am, however, quick to recognize that  just because I might have difficulty seeing the enjoyment in trying to play music that you can’t hear in the same way as the average person, that doesn’t mean the person who climbs that mountain and overcomes his physical limitations cannot find it tremendously rewarding. He might go on to see his efforts hailed by music lovers around the world. After all, Ludwig van Beethoven continued to create his musical masterpieces for several years after he became deaf.

You don’t have to be able to “carry a tune in a bucket” to make beautiful music with your hands.

That is a good thing about playing a musical instrument. You don’t need a singing voice like your favorite pop singer. All you need to learn piano is the desire to learn, the dedication to practice, access to an instrument to play, and time to do it. If you have those things, the rest will come. Musical skill will increase. Your music will become more expressive, more fluid, and more enjoyable – both to play and to listen to. Believe me, you won’t need a bucket for that!