In a world of magic, spells are songs. They aren't easy to sing and becoming truly proficient requires a similar amount of time and effort as it does to become an opera singer on Earth. Of course some people are just naturally talented singers and in fact this is how magic was originally discovered by someone singing away as they worked.

Simple songs can help people lift things. A more complicated song can light a fire. An operatic aria in co-operation with a swordsmith could help to forge a powerful magical weapon. (see note at bottom)

Spells are not permanent - they only occur whilst the singer is actually singing.

The problem

Anyone who is tone-deaf (4% of the population) simply can't do magic, and magic isn't fine grained enough to perform any kind of 'healing' on them. In any case, being tone deaf isn't an illness - it's just a lack of a particular musical ability. Remarkably, people who are simply deaf can learn to sing perfectly well given either healing or the right feedback unless they are also tone-deaf.

The benevolent chief wizard wants everyone to be able to practise magic but she and her advisers simply don't know how to go about it.

This is a medieval society in terms of technology so there is no recording equipment or anything like that. People have tried playing the tunes on musical instruments by rote but it simply doesn't work without the words.


How can the tone-deaf people be allowed to perform magic in a world where the only magic available is through singing?


Many high wizards have tried to come up with a magical answer to this and failed so ideally I am looking for a non-magical solution.

There is a complex relationship between the words of a spell and the melody. It takes a lot of study and understanding to create new spells. Most people simply memorise existing songs that have been found to work by others or that have been especially created by gifted 'composers' (i.e. wizards). Of course only very talented people can sing some of these more difficult works.

It is important that the correct pitch is sung (different octaves are equivalent). Thus people who have perfect pitch have an extra advantage. Those who are musical but do not have perfect pitch must carry a tuned whistle around to get them started. Unfortunately tone-deaf people can not pick up the pitch or sustain it.

Important - To use a magical device such as the powerful sword, the user must sing whilst using it. The magical item simply acts as an amplifier.


At the risk of being somewhat controversial I present the final verse of the original British National Anthem. We don't often hear this being sung!

Lord grant that Marshal Wade

May by thy mighty aid

Victory bring.

May he sedition hush,

And like a torrent rush,

Rebellious Scots to crush.

God save the Queen!


This anthem has a very simple tune and so leaves a lot to be desired in terms of effectiveness. However we can imagine the average soldier being able to sing it and march in time to it as they go into battle. The combined low-grade magic of all the troops could be backed up by an intricate descant from a trained opera singer equipped with a megaphone.

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    $\begingroup$ Are you implicitly assuming that all magic fails if you do not get the tone correct, and that there is no opportunity to explore magical songs that are not dependent on tone (perhaps a magical rap?) $\endgroup$
    – Cort Ammon
    Commented Jan 15, 2019 at 0:31
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    $\begingroup$ Just re-reading your question, but is your musical magic going to be based off of pronounced words, tone or a mix? A tone death person would still be able to cast magic if tone wasn't important, but if instruments don't work, then it implies that the words are far more important. Maybe its just unique noises and phrases that require a combination of words and tone together, but your people associated it with lyrical singing. $\endgroup$
    – Shadowzee
    Commented Jan 15, 2019 at 0:42
  • $\begingroup$ @Cort Ammon - You have to hit the right tone(s) in coordination with the right words. It's just about possible that someone might accidentally hit the right tone sufficiently to cause something to happen but it's equally likely that a bad spell would be formed. $\endgroup$ Commented Jan 15, 2019 at 0:46
  • $\begingroup$ @Shadowzee - It is a lot like some opera arias where the composer writes the music to fit the mood of the words. Thus if you are cursing someone it would likely be in a minor key. You can think of it as the normal conversational tones we use but formalised into rhythm and pitch. $\endgroup$ Commented Jan 15, 2019 at 0:48
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    $\begingroup$ Is there no spell that can be used to allow tone-deaf people to become not tone-deaf? What about a spell that creates an object that will correct someone's tone as the music is emitted? $\endgroup$
    – Stephen
    Commented Jan 15, 2019 at 0:50

7 Answers 7


The thing with being truly tone deaf is that there's no way past it. It can't be trained out, you can never learn to hear the correct pitch.

However what becomes interesting is that in studies of people with amusia who speak tonal languages it's perception that matters, tone production is unaffected.

Tone production was highly accurate in both groups, with 98.6 and 99.6% correct in amusic participants with tone agnosia and controls, respectively, and did not differ significantly from each other (all Mann–Whitney tests being non-significant.). In both groups, tone production scores did not differ between reading and repeating tasks or between meaningful and nonsense words (all Wilcoxon signed rank tests for two related samples being non-significant). Taken together, the amusic participants with tone agnosia seemed to be impaired mainly in lexical tone perception, not in tone production. - Congenital amusia in speakers of a tone language: association with lexical tone agnosia

So your tone deaf population will be able to do magic, they just won't be able to distinguish the tones of other people doing magic.

  • $\begingroup$ Genetic pressure seems like a good argument. Do you have any source for this concerning people who use tonal languages? That would be very interesting. $\endgroup$ Commented Jan 15, 2019 at 10:18
  • $\begingroup$ @chaslyfromUK, it's flagged as "citation needed" on wikipedia :( $\endgroup$
    – Separatrix
    Commented Jan 15, 2019 at 10:19
  • $\begingroup$ Maybe you could find a citation and amend the Wiki article as well!!! $\endgroup$ Commented Jan 15, 2019 at 10:21
  • $\begingroup$ @chaslyfromUK What I'm actually finding is that the 4% figure may be far too high, it could be around 1.5% and tonal languages merely mean it's more important so there are fewer false positives. $\endgroup$
    – Separatrix
    Commented Jan 15, 2019 at 11:24
  • $\begingroup$ @chaslyfromUK, I have researched further and fundamentally changed my conclusions. $\endgroup$
    – Separatrix
    Commented Jan 15, 2019 at 11:34

There are orders of magnitude more kinds of music than the laysman can think of. Not all of them require you to be particularly good at tones to sing.

Below is a link to an Youtube video on Danger Music. The description of the video goes "to study music at AIM is all about having a fun, professional, academic experience, that helps set you up for a diverse lifelong career in the music industry." For added fun, open this link only between 1 and 4 AM. Don't use headphones, set your speakers to 11. It gets even better if your spouse is sound asleep.

Danger Music #17 - Dick Higgins - Fluxus

If music goes as you say...

Simple songs can help people lift things. A more complicated song can light a fire. An operatic aria in co-operation with a swordsmith could help to forge a powerful magical weapon.

... Then Danger Music is the kind of thing people sing after midnight in cemiteries as an equivalent to the Raise Dead spell. Also the dead must make a save against constitution to immediately flee at haul-ass pace upon being ressurrected this way, otherwise they just die again from heart attack.

Using Danger Music spellsongs can also charm people (one command only: "run to the hills") and cause creatures guarding a place to leave their posts, though there is dispute among scholars about whether the last two effects are really magical. If used by a bard prior to battle it can diminish morale among enemy troops, at the cost of diminishing morale among friendly troops.

  • $\begingroup$ Having listened to this I suspect the only spell it would create would be to make the singer's head explode! $\endgroup$ Commented Jan 15, 2019 at 10:23

There are several ways you can do this just by looking at our own musical industry.

Firstly, you can have special instruments. Simply blow into it, press a series of buttons and the spell activates since the instruments allows you to hit all the tones.

Secondly, not all songs need to have a proper tone. Music is more than just the tone. You could have spells that are simply based off of making noises at a certain time, or require words to create key noises which invoke the spell. Rap music comes to mind as a good example you could build off... or something like death metal where my ears literally bleed and everything is yelling.

Finally, if you can teach a person who literally can't hear your music to sing a spell, than someone who is tone deaf can also be taught to sing that same spell. Like... you can teach a person who might literally not understand the concept of sound to sing a song, then you can 100% teach someone who can hear but can't replicate the sound.

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    $\begingroup$ A musical instrument that does magic when you hit the right notes? An ocarina, perhaps?? $\endgroup$
    – Joe Bloggs
    Commented Jan 15, 2019 at 7:41
  • $\begingroup$ @Joe Bloggs - I already excluded that in the question. The words of the song are vital. $\endgroup$ Commented Jan 15, 2019 at 9:55
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    $\begingroup$ @chaslyfromuk: That was a joke about this answer and it’s similarity to the game ‘Ocarina of time’: I didn’t suggest the instrument. $\endgroup$
    – Joe Bloggs
    Commented Jan 15, 2019 at 10:11
  • $\begingroup$ Ah - that went right over my head! I don't play console-type games. $\endgroup$ Commented Jan 15, 2019 at 10:13
  • $\begingroup$ You should expand on the last part of the answer, All you really need is a partner and then you learn the sounds through rout memorization. That pair may even end up better at magic since they will be dissecting the songs systematically. $\endgroup$
    – John
    Commented Jan 15, 2019 at 14:16

Another solution would simply be not to have tone deaf people.

It sounds like there would be some pretty strong selective pressures in your world against tone-deafness, so it would be eminently believable that it would have been selected out in your people's evolutionary past, depending on how early magic was discovered (considering that song is used by a fantastic array of animals, I doubt it would be humans who would be the first to practice magic).

There's evidence to suggest that tone-deafness is at least partially heritable:

The history of vocalisation and song is at the very least millions of years old. The oldest found syrinx (the bird equivalent of a human voicebox) is a 66 million year old specimen found in Antarctica. Considering the vocal capabilities of birds (and the suggestion that non-avian dinosaurs were unlikely to have been able to produce as sophisticated sounds), I'd argue that the first magic-wielding creatures would be avian dinosaurs (unless there's evidence of complex vocalisation earlier than I've found so far).

The ability to produce what amounts to free work simply through song is such a significant boon to a creature that I would expect it to be very strongly selected for. So much so that I'd expect vocalising creatures to rather quickly dominate the ecological landscape of the earth.

The history of human singing stretches back at least 1.8 million years, and the existence of four other singing primates (lemurs, tarsiers, titi monkeys and gibbons) indicate that even in a world without such a strong selective pressure, the ability to sing occurs frequently enough for our ancestors to have stumbled upon it.

Over the (at least) 1.8 million year history of human magic use in your world, I sincerely doubt that the hereditary causes of tone-deafness would endure. Developmental tone-deafness still might occur (say from brain injury), but I see no issue with that preventing magic use (nature is not nice after all).


Due to the (at least) 66-million-year history of complex vocalisation on planet earth, and the fantastic boon magic use would provide to a creature, I'd highly doubt tone-deafness would exist in any human-analogues that evolve.

You could probably even argue that tone-deafness would be non-existent in the majority of organisms populating your version of earth!

  • $\begingroup$ Although I am not convinced by your answer, it gives me a good idea for a further question on the subject - so thanks! $\endgroup$ Commented Jan 16, 2019 at 11:56
  • $\begingroup$ Selected against, possibly, but selected out? Unlikely. Even if it is a genetic trait (rather than a developmental one) then you will likely have recessive carriers of the genome, or people whose other traits make up for it (height, strength, intellect, etc) - and what about acquired amusia, caused by brain damage? $\endgroup$ Commented Jan 16, 2019 at 11:59
  • $\begingroup$ From what evidence I've seen it appears to be heritable (admittedly, not a thorough study). I'll add some links into my answer. Whether it's still expressed at all (even recessively) is probably dependent on the how old magic is in the world. I'll expand my points a little too :) $\endgroup$ Commented Jan 16, 2019 at 12:13

It could be, a person who lacks adequate singing abilities have a less effective or less controlled spell. A person who cannot hold a note, trying to cast a fireball may result in the fireball exploding or flying about all wild.

A tone deaf person trying to conjure a beautiful rose may end up with a dull, grey colored pansy.

Its not that the person cannot cast spells, its that they have less than ideal results. Not everyone can be in the magic business, just like not everyone can be in the music business. But who knows, maybe there is a need for dull or crazy spell casting


What is music? What are words? What makes the combination singing?

While these questions are pretty philosophical you have to answer them (for your world) in order to find a way to have tone-deaf people perform magic.

Normally we use sound for words and making those sounds harmonic, which we then call singing and in your world that makes it magic. To make magic available to tone-deaf people, we need to figure out/decide which "parts" of the singing process actually produce the magic:

  • Is it just the combination of words and music?
    Just playing a magic song on an instrument may not work, but maybe speaking above the right kind of music works?

  • Is it the harmonisation of words and sound/music?
    While some people may argue that Rap isn't music, it is still similar. Even tone-deaf people can be rhythmic and speaking rhythmically while playing some drums might well be worth a try.

  • Is it the harmonisation of language with is medium?
    We use sounds as the main medium of our language, but there are other ways as well: an actually deaf person using sign language may be able to 'harmonise' his language with a special movements/dance into a magic sign-language song (look up deaf poetry videos - it's really interesting).

In reply to the OPs comment & to make the point of this answer clearer:

If singing (the harmonious combination of music and words) produces magic in this world, one can think if this comes just from the exactly these two components or an underlying principle. I have tried to formulate examples of such a principle that would still allow magic in the form the OP describes, but also allow tone-deaf people to perform magic with the same system.
If the requirements for magic are directly: singing with words and music the the answer to the OPs direct question (How can tone-deaf people perform magic) has to be: they can not.

  • $\begingroup$ I think these points are more comments than an answer. If you read my question carefully I believe I have answered all of this. For complicated spells, music and words are similar to those we have in opera. For very simple spells you could get away with singing a nursery-rhyme type tune whilst the words would indicate unambiguously what you want to happen. $\endgroup$ Commented Jan 15, 2019 at 11:02
  • $\begingroup$ @chaslyfromUK This was absolutely meant as an answer and not as a comment. I added a paragraph to better explain my answer. $\endgroup$
    – Nicolai
    Commented Jan 15, 2019 at 11:17
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    $\begingroup$ "What is music? What are words?" What is love? ... Baby don't hurt me, don't hurt me, no more... $\endgroup$ Commented Jan 16, 2019 at 11:50

Teach them the notes individually, in the presence of someone with either Absolute Pitch, or Relative Pitch and a Tuning Fork (to tell them "higher", "lower", or "that's correct").

Rather than the "tone", they are learning the position of the throat and larynx necessary to form a specific pitch through muscle-memory, and then associating this with a visual or linguistic cue such as a letter or note on a musical scale - in the same way that you might teach them hand positions for sign language. They may never sing a smooth and sweeping aria, but plodding one-note-at-a-time chants will be well within reach.

Descending into that most unreliable of examples, an anecdote: I have a relatively weak capability for Relative Pitch - I can hear a tune, and memorise it, but have great difficulty recreating it. Unfortunately, I was also roped into my school's chamber choir, because they needed a Bass - singing alongside a number people who had Absolute Pitch.

As the only Bass, there were a handful of songs that I had to start, instead of joining in at a pitch (roughly) relative to everyone else. Over time, I was able to train myself to "lock" the first note of those songs in the manner detailed above, and thus fake a reasonable level of near-competence.


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