You Might Not Be Tone Deaf

You Might Not Be Tone Deaf

I’m sure you’ve heard the phrase “tone deaf” before. Maybe you’ve heard it from a TV show or movie. A character being made fun of for being flat, having an odd voice or a lack of singing ability. It’s possible that you’ve been to a karaoke night where there’s always that one person that probably shouldn’t have put their name on the list. But they did and now everyone has to listen to an interesting performance of a folk ballad. Maybe it was your mom singing off-key in the car to a classic R&B song. Or your dad belting out Alt Rock from the shower. We all know or have experienced someone who seems to lack the natural ability to sing. But what if I told you that these people might not actually be tone deaf? At least not scientifically.

Amusia is the scientific diagnosis for being tone deaf. These individuals have an inability to hear the difference between two different pitches. According to a study by the Harvard Medical School about 17% of the people in their study self identify as being tone deaf but in actuality only 4% of people are scientifically tone deaf. This study goes on to say that the difference between someone with amusica and someone without comes down to a millisecond response in brain activity. When a typical individual hears a pitch the brain registers a signal at about 200 millisecond while someone with amusica registers around 600 milliseconds.


So what does this mean for the other 13% of people that self identify as tone deaf? In my experience when someone believes that they are tone deaf it is not because that can’t tell the difference between different pitches. Rather these people do not have the expertise to produce or sing back the exact melody and rhythms that they heard. Singing is a skill. As a voice teacher that is something I know to be completely true. Though there are some people who seem to have been born with a natural gift to sing, that does not mean that it is impossible for others to learn the skills that are necessary to sing.


I’ve had the opportunity to teach several instrumentalists who believed that they could not sing. Some had even been called tone deaf. But all these individuals have musical skills. They would not have been diagnosed with amusica. They simply lacked the ability to produce the sounds they were hearing with their vocal instrument. It takes time to learn a new skill and we live in a world of instant gratification. As a voice teacher it becomes my responsibility to establish little victories over time. Victories that show the new singer that they are making progress. Victories that prove that they are not tone deaf.


If you know someone that seems to lack all singing ability (or maybe that person is you) I want you to know that tone deafness is incredibly rare. People with amusica often do not enjoy music at all. So belt in your shower, croon in your car and give your best performance at your favorite karaoke spot. If you enjoy singing that is all that really matters. And if you want to learn more about the skill of singing, find a voice teacher that you can trust and who will meet you where you are.


References and Related Content

The Neuroscience of Tone Deafness

The amusic brain: in tune, out of key, and unaware

On tune deafness (dysmelodia): frequency, development, genetics and musical background

Tone Deafness: A New Disconnection Syndrome?

Tone Deafness (Amusia) and Other Causes of Persistent Pitch Problems

The Genetics of Congenital Amusia (Tone Deafness): A Family-Aggregation Study

What are the genetics behind tone deafness?


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