This is something I hear often. From almost ANYONE who is talking to me about singing. There is often awkward laughter as whomever I am talking to confesses, "You don't even want to hear me sing.. I am tone deaf."
I have parents bring their children in for assessment lessons all the time and ask me in hushed tones, morbidly concerned, ".....can they really sing?....are you sure my kid isn't tone deaf?"
I can't really be certain where the idea came from that struggle hitting pitches would lend itself directly into this diagnosis. But the reality is that true "tone deafness" really only occurs in the tiniest of tiniest amounts of the entire world population. In fact, to be medically tone deaf you would find yourself unable to recognize a song melody you had heard even hundreds of times before. Music melodies and tempos would all sound exactly the same and you certainly wouldn't be able to tell a great singer from a poor one, your favorite song from one you hated, or one note on the piano from another.
So why are there so many people struggling with finding or hitting pitches?
In my experience this struggle comes from two things; the first and much more common one being the lack of balance these people have established in the working muscles of their voices. Unless you are naturally a perfect singer, and let's face it, none of us are.. singing can sometimes be a balancing act working to control how much air the vocal cords have passing between them, the amount of extrinsic muscle is involved, as well as how effectively or ineffectively the muscles within the cords are stretching to meet the demand of the pitch. I have found in most cases, once you have established good vocal technique and taught the student how to navigate their way through their bridges, pitch issues become a thing of the past.
The second and less common of these reasons certainly could cause some confusion about the severity of the problem. Sometimes the student does, in fact, have difficulty hearing the pitch. While this can take a little more patience on behalf of the student, I have yet to meet a client who couldn't be trained to hear these notes and navigate them as the voice does start to achieve that balance I mentioned above.
It begs the question then.. can anyone learn to sing?
Though some may need to work harder than others, I am willing to say YES. Singing is more about science than you would think, and when given the right tools and the right knowledge, there is definite opportunity for growth and vocal development.