Many people sing badly and think they’re tone deaf, but a surprisingly low proportion of them truly can’t tell one note from another. They not only can’t sing, they also can’t enjoy music, may have trouble with certain forms of language, and may be unable to communicate emotion in their speech.

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  • Dr. Psyche Loui, Assistant Professor of Psychology and Neuroscience, Weslyan University
  • Dr. Dominique Vuvan, researcher, International Laboratory for Brain, Music and Sound Research

Links for more information:

Tone Deafness

Reed Pence: Karaoke bars are a place where hidden talent–or the lack of it–comes out of the woodwork. Some people truly seem to have a gift, and there are many others who’ve struck out musically. But they’re still trying.

Psyche Loui: You will see some people who don’t really know that they’re tone deaf and they are completely ignorant about it but once they start, like everybody else around them know that that is what tone deafness sounds like.

Reed Pence: Dr. Psyche Loui is Assistant Professor Of Psychology And Neuroscience at Wesleyan university. Karaoke bars are a special interest of hers. She’s one of the nation’s top researchers into the biology of being tone deaf.

Psyche Loui: And you know, of course, the more uninhibited you become the more your singing starts to sound like shouting or just monotone speech and then you start to question whether it’s uninhibitness or the tone deafness that might be giving rise to the singing.

Reed Pence: Millions of Americans have gone through life thinking they’re hopelessly tone deaf when they’re really not. In fact, it’s kind of ironic that people who are truly tone deaf may be the last to know they’re bad singers, because they can’t tell the difference. Every singer and every note sounds the same to them. But most people don’t fall into that category. They can tell the difference between musical pitches, but they can’t reproduce them accurately. They’re just bad singers.

Psyche Loui: There are a lot of people who walk around thinking that they’re tone deaf about 1 out of 7 people in the normal population think that they’re really tone deaf, but a lot of times they say that because they are unable to sing, and there’s lots of reasons why we can’t sing, right, I mean sometimes people aren’t socially inhibited, but despite a fair amount of musical training, you know, still unable to hear differences in pitch., then we really define that as being tone deaf so a lot of times people who are tone deaf can’t hear that they are out of tune.

Reed Pence: The difference between people who are simply bad singers and those who are really tone deaf is important. People who are tone deaf typically have what’s called Congenital Amusia.

Dominique Vuvan: This is defined more specifically then what people usually colloquially call tone deafness by the fact that it is a neurodevelopmental and neurogenetic disorder so this is reflected in the fact that there are inheritable components to it. And it’s also developmental and congenital, so it’s present at birth and has a developmental trajectory throughout the lifespan.

Reed Pence: That’s Dr. Dominique Vuvan of the International Laboratory For Brain, Music and Sound Research in Montreal, known as BRAMS, where some of the world’s most comprehensive research into Amusia goes on. She says music is a completely different and perhaps not very enjoyable experience for people who are tone deaf.

Dominique Vuvan: I mean, if you can’t tell the difference between something that’s totally in tune and awesome, and something that sounds like garbage to everyone else, then it’s not so much fun. You know, some of these people are able to make it work, and some of them describe the music, as you know, it sounds like a truck backing up, basically, like it’s no difference from noise for them.

Psyche Loui: Some people think it all sounds the same, some people think it sounds like clanging ,some people think it’s just, like, very unpleasant. So, it really depends on who you talk to.

Reed Pence: But how do you know if you’re really tone deaf or not? Vuvan says you find out not by singing, but by listening.

Dominique Vuvan: You let them listen to a melody and sometimes will have anot that’s out of key or out of tune and sometimes the melody will be just fine.

Reed Pence: Find out for yourself

Dominique Vuvan: And they have to say yes this melody has some sort of weird sour note in it, or no this melody is fine. This task is super easy for non tone-deaf individuals including the ones who will tell you they’re ton deaf when they ‘re really not. This is something that really is quite automatic for normal listeners, so, you know if you listen to a tune and somebody plays a really wrong note you’ll get an almost visceral cringing response from normal individuals. Tone-deaf participants on the other hand cannot detect these they just find them to sound completely normal.

Reed Pence: People who would flunk the test and are truly tone-deaf make up between two-and-a-half and four percent of the population. They’re more likely to have family that are tone deaf, too, so it’s likely that genetics play a role. Loui and her team have determined that people who are truly tone deaf have specific connection problems in the brain.

Psyche Loui: It’s really a wiring problem, really a difference in connectivity of the major pathways for the brain between regions that are important for sound processing and regions that are important for sound production.  

Reed Pence: The BRAMS laboratory has traced the path of tone perception as well, and determined that part of the brain of tone-deaf people cringes at wrong notes just like everybody else’s. But the wiring problem cuts the message off before a tone deaf person hears it. Scientists have also determined that Amusia is a problem that goes beyond just music. Differences in pitch are part of spoken language, especially in tonal languages such as Chinese. And even in English, inflection is one of the main ways we communicate emotion. So, Loui says tone deafness affects more than musical abilities.

Psyche Loui: Most tone-deaf people, the findings also show that there are some difficulties with speech processing. So, specifically the low frequency information or the prosody of the information. In speech, so prosody is kind of pitch information and stress information, and you know, sort of how you say certain sounds to convey, for instance, emotion. Given the same sentence, you could say it in a very happy way, or you could say it in a very sad way, or you could say it in a tender way. There are many different ways that you could pronounce the same sentence and that would give rise to sort of emotional content in speech, so that’s known as prosody, and we know now that people who are tone deaf are not so good at processing prosody.

Reed Pence: But if tone deafness is a neurological condition from birth, what can we do about it? It turns out this is one major area of difference between people who are truly tone deaf and those who are merely bad singers. Vocal training helps bad singers match pitch and get better. Tone-deaf people may be beyond help.

Dominique Vuvan: Tone Deaf individuals do improve a little bit over time, but not the way that a normal individual does. You might have an individual who has comes into a lab and says you know I can’t carry a tune in a bucket basically I think I’m tone deaf. But you’ll test them a few times and they’ll get so much better with testing that you’ll realize it’s just oh you probably just didn’t spend enough time singing or playing an instrument or just being around music. It’s an experiential issue not so much a neurological developmental issue like real, true tone deafness is.

Reed Pence: In other words, with enough training, it’s likely you can make a bad singer into a competent one.

Psyche Loui: There are people who are poor pitch singers they’re not really tone deaf but they just can’t really get their voices to match the intended sound so it’s really an auditory motor mapping problem. And that’s actually quite common and I think that maybe training can help people who are poor pitch singers more than people who actually can’t hear the target of what their supposed to produce. Which is closer to what tone deafness is about. There are lots of things that voice training can do to your brain such as changing the wiring patterns and white matter pathways of your brain. We’ve looked at people with voice training compared to other types of musicians, compared to non-musicians and in general the finding is that brain pathways that are connecting your auditory and motor regions are actually better connected in people who are musically trained and especially in people who have voice training.

Reed Pence: However, that’s not how we think of singing, and not how most bad singers think of themselves.

Steven Demorest: For some reason, singing is viewed more as something you either have or don’t have. And particularly once somebody is an accurate singer, we don’t think that’s going to change over time. In other words, once you can do it, it’s like riding a bike — you can always do it.

Reed Pence: But Dr. Steven Demorest, Professor Of Music Education at Northwestern University, says that’s not how it really is.

Steven Demorest: Singing ability does wax and wane depending on how engaged you are in it. In that way it is like other skills, particularly other musical skills, which on the one hand says, if you want to be good, you better practice, but on the other hand says if you’re not good, practicing will make you better. I really think for some reason singing is not seen that way. For some reason, singing is seen as something as this gift that you’re either given or not. And while a beautiful singing voice is a wonderful gift–I’ll be the first to say that it’s nice to hear somebody who has a beautiful voice–if we look closely, I think we’ll see that that beautiful voice came through a combination perhaps of a predisposition, but also some really hard work and a lot of engagement in singing.

Reed Pence: Demorest did a study showing that singing well is like a lot of other abilities– you either use it or lose it. He tested kindergartners, sixth graders and adults in their ability to match pitch accurately or sing in tune. He found a great deal of improvement between kindergarten and 6th grade. But when he tested adults…

Steven Demorest: We assumed that either the adults would be at the level of the sixth graders (assuming no significant differences in background between our adults and our sixth graders) we thought they’d be at the level of the sixth graders, or possibly they would have improved with more maturity. Instead, what we found on two of the three tasks, the adults sort of regressed. They were more like kindergartners then six graders on two of the three tasks. We don’t know why. One of the possible explanations for our results and the one that we think is most likely, is that once mandatory music ends, we know that most people don’t go on to elective music. So, if you stop singing after sixth grade in any consistent way, it’s likely that the skill goes down. You get worse.

Reed Pence: But it doesn’t take being in something like a choir to maintain your singing chops. Singing along with the radio can do it. Singing in the shower. But a lot of people have given up even on that because somebody once told them they can’t sing.

Steven Demorest: People who are sort of labeled as inaccurate, it’s kind of damaging to them in terms of their future participation choices in music. They really think of themselves as somehow unmusical, like this is something that can’t be fixed. We have research with adults where they literally recount when somebody told them. Whether it was a music teacher all too often, or a family member, and what age they were, and where they were, and they really remember this. It seems to be kind of a scarring experience because say you can’t play the piano well somehow, that doesn’t hit you as personally but when you say you can’t sing, it’s like a part of you is flawed, not just your skill level.

Reed Pence: In our culture, Demorest says, we’re not encouraged to sing. We don’t have very many risk-free places to get better. But he says hand kids a microphone and they’re doing American idol. Sometimes badly, but at least they’re doing it.

Steven Demorest: Karaoke is a place. So, it’s not a choir thing, it’s just a singing thing, but depending on who you hang with and what kind of karaoke bar you might go to, it’s ok to be bad at it to a certain extent. So, it can be a place where people can try stuff out and maybe get better, and now with a lot of stuff available online. But I do think we are lacking opportunities. If you go to certain countries, group singing is a part of public gatherings festivals. There’s more folk music kind of in the air. We don’t really have that even, anymore, when you go to a sporting event the national anthem is sung to you rather than with you.

Reed Pence: And even if you’re not a Tony Bennett or Lady Gaga, singing is good for you. It releases feel-good chemicals in the brain, so it’s a natural stress reliever. Even if you can’t carry a tune yet. So go ahead. You can find out more about all our guests on our website, Radiohealthjournal.net. You can always find our shows on ITunes and Stitcher. I’m Reed Pence.

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