This is geared to newcomers to our hobby and love of making music. As we start learning about music and begin actually paying close, deliberate attention to what we're hearing, it's easy to start psyching ourselves out... I remember overthinking everything in my early days, especially as I was introduced to music theory and harmonization.
Even to this day I still over-tighten brand new guitar strings and break them because I can't tell what octave I'm in. Thankfully I'm not an actual guitar player, but the point still stands. Without practice, you'll never get better.
But first you need to know where you stand. There's a huge difference between over-analyzing and actually being tone deaf. You can find out quickly if you are tone deaf by taking this quick quiz at:
It's a simple quiz on a simple website, but it gets the job done. You'll run through a handful of yes-or-no tests to determine:
That's it. There's no trick questions or difficult examples. You can either hear it or you can't. This is the first step to determining your next approach to overcoming any issues. If you can hear the changes and differences in pitch then you are not tone deaf. Any difficulties can be attributed to the complexity of the songs or you just psyching yourself out. Sometimes it's tricky due to octave switching too. You can have a "higher" pitch in a lower octave and it all gets confusing.
But if you determine that you're actually tone deaf, then there are steps you can take to overcome this problem. You're not stuck with it.
Rest assured, the chances of you being actually tone deaf are slim. Around 4% of the population deals with a condition called amusia, or true tone deafness. Otherwise, you likely just need practice. There may be the off-chance that you've damaged your hearing for a specific pitch or two that's beyond recuperating but the chances are super slim.
You'll need to go out there into the internet to find resources, but here's the direction you should be hunting: First (and this is where 99% of musicians are at), you just need to be able to determine the difference between one pitch and another. This is called Relative Pitch. It's always comparison based and all we really need.
There are some people out there who can pull off Perfect Pitch where they can hear the flavor of every note and tell you exactly which it is regardless of the octave. That's cool and all but not necessary. But it can be learned too!
Regarding "relative pitch," you'll first begin practicing on noticing if the pitches actually differ. Then you'll start to work with the intervals by which they differ. Hearing is only part of the battle. After this you need to begin practicing reproducing it with your mouth (also known as singing!). This helps you anchor your hearing with other biological functions such as your throat shape and the amount of air you're pushing and the feel of the vibrations. In time, your brain will latch on and form enough associations that you'll overcome this issue for good.
The first step is determining if you actually suffer from this problem or not, and that can be solved using the quiz above. Good luck on your long musical journey! It's a fun one.