Are you tone deaf? Or do you just think you are?

Posted on July 27, 2015

Photo: flickr

Many “tone deaf” individuals got that label in childhood from a musical adult. The musically gifted often foist the “tone deaf” label on those whose music production abilities aren’t up to their expectations. There are many reasons a child—or even an adult—can’t sing in tune or play the right notes. It could be a lack of motor skill development, motivation, or even training. But a deficit in music perception isn’t usually the cause.

Congenital amusia is a condition in which people are born with diminished ability to discriminate changes in pitch. It’s estimated that about 4% of the population experiences some degree of amusia. (The condition can also be acquired through brain damage such as stroke later in life, but this is rare.) The bulk of self-declared “tone deaf” individuals actually have music perception skills in the normal range.

Even when people with amusia can detect a change in pitch, they still have difficulty determining whether the change was upward or downward. Directional changes in pitch play an important role in conveying meaning in music. Take for example the spiritual “Swing Low Sweet Chariot,” which starts with a falling pitch contour that turns upward along, “Coming for to carry me home,” thus depicting the chariot’s descent to earth and ascent back into heaven. Most of us have an intuitive feel for rising and falling contours in familiar melodies, but individuals with amusia don't.

This doesn’t mean that people with amusia can’t recognize familiar melodies. If you present them with a sung version of “Jingle Bells,” of course they’ll know the words, and they might even sing along. But if you play an instrumental version of the song, they’ll have no idea what it is.

Click on the link below to learn more about amusia.


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