Before you put the blame on your lack of singing skills to quitting high school choir, you might want to check out your hearing. Years of drumming, jamming in a rock band, or working as a sound tech can wreak havoc on your hearing. While medical hearing tests can check how well your ears compare to a specific standard, Tone Tester has the musician in mind and checks how well your ears can detect one pitch from another.

Many people don’t realize that when they play the note B flat, their right ear may detect B flat while their left ear identifies it as closer to B natural – a difference of up to one semitone! Repeated damage to one’s ears can also lead to a difference in volume/intensity of pitch. Audiologists refer to this as “binaural diplacusis”. While reversing ear damage may not be possible, you should test your ears if you feel that an inability to detect pitch may have a medical cause.

Check your hearing with ToneTester

The internet provides a variety of interesting pitch detection testers. You can try a freeware or shareware product, or opt for high end software. Being a thrifty musician myself, I decided to check out my hearing with ToneTester. ToneTester is a freeware program for Macintosh which allows you to check any hearing and pitch discrepancies through a simple interface:

The ToneTester interface for testing left/right hearing differences

The ToneTester interface for testing left/right hearing differences

How it works

With ToneTester a constant pitch pans between your left and right ear. Using simple sliders you adjust the pitches played until your left and right ears hear the same thing. For example, my left ear and right ear have as much as 0.6 of a semitone’s difference when ToneTester plays lower pitches. It seems my twenty years as a percussionist have affected overall volume, with my left ear hearing 20% less than my right ear. According to ToneTester, my hearing improves with higher pitches. This knowledge will come in handy when I am mixing down audio, matching pitch with my voice, or tuning an instrument. Tone Tester also recommends that I should see my doctor about possible causes for hearing loss, including heredity or even a head cold.

When using ToneTester, or similar program, be sure to test a variety of pitches. You may find out that your hearing is fine with lower pitches but has some discrepancies with high pitches. Check volume differences, too. Be sure that the problems are due to your ears and not faulty headphones! If you find a huge difference between your ears, head to your physician. You may find that your singing skills greatly improve after a visit to your doc and some OTC cold medicine…

Being aware of any quirks of your hearing system is essential for anybody spending time on ear training. Whether you’re learning a reference pitch, using Audacity to check pitches or working on frequency training, make sure you to check your hearing once in a while, using a tool like ToneTester.

Let us know how you get on by leaving a comment below!