Tone deafness is a condition whereby a person can listen to music but cannot necessarily differentiate the intricacies of the music in terms of the changes in the high and low notes.

A tone-deaf person cannot hear himself sing. Scientifically, tone deafness is called Amusia. And yes, tone deafness is a real condition that affects about 4% of the world’s population.

Imagine waking up in the morning, and you hear the beautiful sound of the piano coming from your living room. Assuming you don’t have amusia, you could probably hear the notes and differentiate which one is higher or lower. Sadly, tone-deaf people can’t do that.

Marion Cousineau is a researcher at the International Laboratory for Brain, Music and Sound Research at the University of Montreal. She spent many years working with people who are tone-deaf to understand what the world sounds like to them.

Cousineau explained that the brain of people who suffer from amusia could not detect differences in pitch. They cannot process the difference in the way that non-amusia can.

According to Cousineau, each person she interacted with described their amusia differently after an online test was conducted. Where some people hear clanging pots, some people hear beautiful sounds.


Is Tone-deafness Hereditary?

The cause of tone-deafness is still unknown, but scientists are beginning to discover some interesting clues. Scientists have studied several families of people who are tone-deaf, and they’ve concluded that the condition is hereditary. It means that if a parent is tone-deaf, there’s a chance that kids will also be tone-deaf.

The scientists also concluded that amusia is a type of agnosia (a Greek word that means ‘not knowing’). Agnosia is used to describe a condition whereby a person is disconnected from what he’s seeing, hearing, or feeling, and his previous knowledge of his senses.

Rock band dressed up as vegetable

What Happens in the Brain of a Tone-deaf Person?

In 2009, a study was done, and it got closer to revealing what goes on in the brain of a tone-deaf person when they listen to music and hear noise instead. Two volunteers, one with amusia and the other person without, were hooked to an EEG equipment to check the electrical activity in different parts of their brain when they listened to music.

Both volunteers were made to listen to different music notes, and one of the notes was out of key. Every time the out-of-tune was played, the researchers found similar brain activity in both volunteers. The brain activity proved that whether a person is tone-deaf or not, everyone’s brain will at least pick up the out-of-tune sound.

However, while both the non-amusic and amusic volunteers displayed similar brain activity initially after hearing the sound for the first few milliseconds, only the non-amusic person showed different brain activity a few milliseconds after.

The scientists reasoned that the second burst of brain activity in the non-amusic suggested that only the brains of people who are not tone-deaf communicated the out-of-tune sound to a higher brain area, making them aware that they heard it. On the other hand, the brain of the amusic person maintained its initial activity, proving that it was unaware of the out-of-tune sound.

People suffering from amusia can function in every other area except that their musical ability is distorted. However, other studies are starting to detect that people suffering from tone-deaf may find difficulty in detecting some language cues too.

Brother and sister wearing pajamas in children's room

In a Nutshell

Most people who think they’re tone-deaf may not have amusia. They may only have untrained ears. They don’t know when they’re singing out of tune but can hear music just fine.

Those people may have lacked early music training and cannot sing in tune, but with practice, they can get better.

If you suspect you are tone-deaf, visit Perfect Hearing and talk to our ENT specialists. Our clinics and hearing aids centres are situated all around Malaysia, including Johor Bahru and Melaka.

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