We hear it talked about all the time, but what actually is tone deafness? Can people actually be tone deaf, or are they simply unmusical? Here’s everything you need to know about the phenomenon of tone deafness.
What is tone-deafness?
Do you find it difficult to sing in tune? Perhaps you made slow progress learning a musical instrument at school. This doesn’t necessarily mean that you’re tone deaf—a term that is often used fairly liberally to signify a general lack of musical talent. However, genuine tone deafness, or ‘amusia’ to use its technical term, is a congenital impairment that affects 4% of the population.
What are the symptoms of tone-deafness?
Those with the disorder are unable to discern differences in pitch or to follow and remember simple tunes. Some sufferers of amusia describe music as unpleasant, while others refer to it as noise.
What’s happening in the brains of amusiacs?
Brain scans of people with amusia have revealed that there is a weaker connection between the part of the brain that processes sound and the part of the brain responsible for higher-level thinking. Brain imaging used to measure the density of connecting nerve fibres between the right frontal lobe, where higher thinking occurs, and the right temporal lobes, where basic sound processing occurs, showed thinner white matter, suggesting a weaker connection.
Is tone-deafness connected to speech function?
Some researchers believe there’s a strong connection between how the brain processes music and how it handles speech, as the latter also relies strongly on pitch and rhythm. Others, though, contest that musical perception occurs separately from other functions and that there are networks in our brains dedicated solely to music.
A study by Goldsmiths, University of London found that participants diagnosed with congenital amusia experienced difficulty reading facial expressions and discerning vocal emotions, and that they were unable to determine whether laughter was genuine or fake. The condition may therefore have wider social consequences than previously believed.
Is tone-deafness genetic?
A study entitled The Genetics of Congenital Amusia, published in PubMed Central, found that people who are tone deaf tend to have relatives who are also tone deaf. The authors of the study concluded that tone deafness ‘is likely to be influenced by several genes that interact, both with each other and with the environment, to produce an overall susceptibility to the development of the disorder’. In other words, genetics is likely to play an important part in tone deafness, but social factors may well play a part too.
Can tone-deafness be cured?
Unfortunately, no treatment has yet been shown to improve genuine amusia. However, for those without the condition, pitch determination, singing ability, and general musical confidence can certainly be improved with tuition and practice.