32. Where Do Tone-Deaf People Come From?
Professor A.N. Leontyev, a well-known psychologist, spent many years researching the specifics of the perception of speech and music sounds. One of his discoveries draws some light on the problem of “lack of musical talent,” the inability to separate sounds by their pitch. As it turns out, we perceive speech through its vowel ornamentation. Our perception attributes the pitch of sounds to vowels. When one sings out the vowel “U” [“oo”] and “I” [“ee”], “U” sounds lower than “I.” The first thing that a child learns to do is to speak. This means that the first to develop is our “ear for speech.” Whether it also becomes musical all depends on our surroundings.
It is possible that a lack of hearing isn’t an attribute that’s present at birth, but rather acquired. I first developed this idea when I read Masaru Ibuka’s book “After Three Years, it’s Already Too Late.” He insists that bad hearing is not embedded genetically, but is passed on from parents to children. “The child, raised by the mother that doesn’t have music hearing, also grows up without the hearing,” writes the founder of Sony. “Let’s assume that the mother doesn’t have hearing, and that every day, the child listens to her lullabies, sung in distorted melodies. He remembers this melody as an example, and will also sing it incorrectly. And when the mother hears this, she will say that her child also doesn’t have music hearing, and that hearing is, after all, a gift of God. If Mozart and Beethoven were also raised by such mothers, then they’d be guaranteed to have bad hearing.
”Ibuka’s take seems rather categorical to me. I know many people that were gifted with hearing from early childhood and didn’t see that it was worsened by “nonmusical” surroundings. But hearing can be developed even among the most tone-deaf, and this is a fact. All it takes is to create conditions under which the perception of music can be improved. Not to mention that hearing and the voice can develop with the help of very simple exercises. It brings about the notion that the person is simply restoring an ability given to him by nature. While it isn’t in demand, it remains dormant. All it takes is to invoke it, and it easily wakes up!
While I was a student I knew of famous music and choir teachers that could turn tone-deaf students into vocalists. One of these “magicians” was Muscovite choirmaster Dmitri Ogorodnov.
Once, he carried out an interesting experiment in Moscow’s Boarding School No.42. Eye witness S. Kozirev writes in his article about the event: “Not too long ago his students were as tone-deaf as they get, awfully out of tune, and didn’t even think about [the possibility of]singing in a choir on stage. Ogorodnov was actually quite happy with this circumstance; for the ‘purity of the experiment’ it wasn’t bad at all. This would make the result more pronounced. Now, there is a choir in the boarding school!”
It is significant that in working with students, Ogorodnov depended, above all else, on work with vowels. Kozirev writes: “These transformations are amazing, but [Ogorodnov’s] methods are even more surprising. To teach the vocal chords to work correctly, the kids first sing the sound ‘Oo,’ conducted by an extraordinary scheme drawn on paper. This isn’t study, but rather a game with sounds. He calls these intricate monograms with flowers ‘algorithms of the arrangement of the voice.’ The program of lessons is built on two or three notes familiar to the kids, on which speech is built upon. In them, like in a seed, are embedded all of the possibilities of the voice!
“The methodology of this work is a separate, very wide subject. But it is a fact that after these activities the voice suddenly develops and sets, and music hearing develops in the most hopeless students. Here are the instructions for this algorithm: “The voice isn’t simply sound, but an expression of the soul. It should be expressed freely, not compulsively… Don’t ‘study’ the song, but sound it out.” He had students that weren’t even allowed into music school. Now, many of them study in a music conservatory, and in arts colleges.”