Are You Tone Deaf?

Or do you just think you are?

Posted Jul 24, 2015

In fourth grade music class, Sister Regina told me not to sing. “You’re distracting the other children,” she said in front of the whole class. “Just move your lips, but don’t make any sound.” My tone deafness became a running joke in music class for the rest of the year. According to surveys, about 15% of Americans consider themselves tone deaf. 

Many “tone deaf” individuals got that label in childhood from a musical adult. My experience in music class isn’t unusual. And here’s another common route to tone deafness: After a year of piano lessons with no discernible progress, the exasperated instructor blurts out, “Are you tone deaf?” and declares the child unteachable. (Instead of the more honest admission that she’s unable to teach the child.)

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.

Persons with amusia have difficulty detecting small changes in pitch. If I were to play a series of notes such as C-C-C-C#, almost everyone—including most people who consider themselves “tone deaf”—would hear the change. Likewise, people can generally tell when a note in a familiar melody is off by a sharp or a flat. Those who suffer from amusia can’t reliably detect a change from C to C#—a distance of one semitone—but they might be able to hear a distance of four semitones, such as from C to E.

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.

Because people with amusia show no obvious signs of language deficit, the condition has long been viewed as evidence that language and music are processed differently in the brain. This is despite the fact that pitch perception is important to both. However, recent experiments using more subtle tests have shown that amusia impacts language perception as well.

Pitch contours convey important information in language, as in distinguishing questions from answers. Imagine a flight attendant walking the aisle with pot in hand saying, “Coffee?” Contrast this with asking her what’s in the pot: “Coffee.” People with amusia may not hear this pitch change, or even if they hear it, they can’t tell whether it’s rising or falling. Still, there are plenty of other context cues available.

Even speakers of a tone language such as Mandarin Chinese can be affected by amusia. In Mandarin, tone is an essential component in discriminating one word from another. For instance, “ma” means “mother” with a high tone but “horse” with a low tone. Mandarin speakers with amusia do show deficits in sentence comprehension, but only in moderately noisy conditions. (They perform just as well as those without amusia in pristine conditions, and just as bad in very noisy conditions.)

Incidentally, when people sing in Mandarin, they follow the melody and ignore the tones. So clearly there’s plenty of other information in the speech stream to compensate for the loss of tone. (As an aside, my Chinese in-laws have been putting up with my toneless Mandarin for a quarter of a century.)

Although I’ve never been tested, I’m pretty sure I’m not really tone deaf. Over the years, I’ve developed a deep love of classical music, and I frequently have a tune running through my head. I often beat my musicologist wife at “Name That Tune.” And here’s a personal disclosure that even my family doesn’t know about me—when I’m all alone, and I know that no one can hear me, I like to sing.

But I do not sing in front of other people—the ghost of Sister Regina still haunts me. Handed a mic at a karaoke bar, I protest: “No, I can’t. I’m tone deaf.” If they absolutely insist, I sing a few bars so horrendously off key that they quickly beg me to stop.

Perhaps that’s what happened in fourth grade music class. Bored and unmotivated, I sang out of tune just so the teacher would say something. Who knows? If only Sister Regina had been more patient that day, if only she could have found a way to inspire me, I could be crooning karaoke on a Saturday night.

References

  • Fang, L., Jiang, C. Wang, B., Xu, Y., & Patel, A. (2015). A music perception disorder (congenital amusia) influences speech comprehension. Neuropsychologia, 66, 111-118.
  • Patel, A. D. (2008). Music, language, and the brain. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.
  • Vuvan, D. T., Nunes-Silva, M., & Peretz, I. (2015). Meta-analytic evidence for the non-modularity of pitch processing in congenital amusia. Cortex, 69, 186-200.

David Ludden is the author of The Psychology of Language: An Integrated Approach (SAGE Publications).