Just What Exactly Does Being “Tone Deaf” Mean?

A lot of us are not very good singers. We have had to lip-sync in school choir or during church hymns. Most of us will only sing in the shower or in an automobile with the windows rolled up. If you ask, most people will tell you that they consider themselves tone deaf. Statistically, one out of seven people are in fact tone deaf.

If you’re tone deaf, that doesn’t necessarily mean that you have hearing problems or are unable to hear music correctly; after all, many inept singers enjoy listening to music very much. When spoken of literally and in a medical sense, tone deafness is defined as not being able to accurately perceive music, rather than just being a poor singer. Studies conducted using musical listening tests reveal that the higher percentage attributed to the tone deaf should really be reduced from one in seven to one in 20. People who are tone deaf lack the ability to hear the different tone levels, such as high and low notes, which makes it difficult to follow the simplest melody, if they are able to at all.

The most serious form of tone deafness is called amusia. A person who is born with this condition has congenital amusia. The Montreal Battery for the Evaluation of Amusia allows physicians and researchers to determine which pitches a truly tone deaf person is unable to distinguish. Another helpful tool is the imaging scan of the brain that allows researchers to compare the brain activity of the tone deaf, the average person and the musical genius.

A lot of these studies are a result of researchers wanting to know more about the brain and how it processes music. To date, researchers aren’t seeking any sort of treatment or cure for tone deafness. However, the researchers studying amusia feel their results may be useful in studies done on other types of developmental disabilities, and if answers are found to unlock the mysteries of tone deafness, other disability-related problems may also be solved.

The amusia study participants listen to Western music, which is composed of semitones, also called half-steps; for example, the range between C and C-sharp or A and A-flat. Most humans can distinguish between mere fractions of a semitone so distinguishing between semitones is quite easy. People with amusia can’t recognize differences in musical pitches unless they’re given a wide range of sounds to listen to.

Unable to make out the direction or contour of pitches, individuals who are tone deaf struggle with isolating pitches. It is the variations in pitch contour which creates the melody of all types of songs. Research has demonstrated that people with amusia truly cannot pick out a shift in the pitch of note within a musical phrase.

And it may seem that it’s not just the pitch and melody that escapes the amusia sufferer, but the rhythm as well. However, through some studies have proven that people with amusia can find the beat when a song is played with only one note. It may be that amusics accidentally grasp the rhythm of a piece of music when they’re listening to an ordinary song and get thrown off track by the pitch changes.

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