What's amusing about amusia?

Welcome to, a place to find out more about something called amusia, a condition that can make it very difficult to carry a tune or learn to play a musical instrument. Widespread ignorance of this condition—commonly referred to in derogatory terms like tone deafness or tin ears—can lead to social and emotion problems for those who have it. I know, because I have amusia. Amusia is defined as: "a musical disorder that appears mainly as a defect in processing pitch but also encompasses musical memory and recognition" ( Wikipedia ). Some studies suggest that as many as 4% of people are born with an innate inability to recognize musical tones or to reproduce them. This is referred to as congenital amusia. In 2018, I discovered that my lifelong failure to sing or learn guitar—despite great effort—was due to congenital amusia, not some weird character defect (although you can still find music coaches who insist that amusiacs are just being lazy). When time permits, I p

Emotion processing in congenital amusia: the deficits do not generalize to written emotion words

There is something to be said for academic article titles that give you the bottom line. In this case, the bottom line is that, as a congenital amusiac, I am probably better able to convey my emotions in written words than a face-to-face conversation. (This makes a lot of sense to me when I think of all those poems I wrote to girls when I was a teenager.) Here's what the abstract says: "Results showed that participants with amusia preformed significantly less accurately than controls in emotion prosody recognition; in contrast, the two groups showed no significant difference in accuracy rates in both written word tasks (emotion recognition and valence judgment)."  So, while my amusia turned many music lessons at school into a form of torture, I was still able to win the school prize in English (twice). Also, and this is true, I once aced a test in Music class because it was an essay question that involved describing orchestral sounds. The abstract continues: "The res

Altered functional connectivity during speech perception in congenital amusia

Interesting! Congenital amusia equates to "a lifelong history of unreliable pitch processing" and this paper suggests that people with this condition, which includes me, "downweight pitch cues during speech perception and instead rely on other dimensions such as duration." The results indicate that: "the reliability of perceptual dimensions is linked with functional connectivity between frontal and perceptual regions, and suggest a compensatory mechanism." Reading the paper is a great way to sample current thinking on how humans perceive the many different elements of person-to-person communication. Pre-publication manuscript of the paper is online here .

Amusia and facial recognition: a fascinating [mis]connection?

My fellow amusiacs! Do you have problems recognizing people? There could be an explanation for that. A recent study "explored face perception and memory in congenital amusics." A look what they found: "The results of the present study suggest that the impairment attributed to congenital amusia is not only limited to music, but also extends to visual perception and visual memory domain." You can read the article here .

Being tone deaf is not a choice, it's a disability

The main purpose of this blog post is to introduce people to an excellent piece of amusia research titled: Effects of vocal training in a musicophile with congenital amusia . If you want to dive right into it, here is a link to  the article as a PDF file . If you want a little more context, please read the following. Most people are familiar with this scenario: Johnny is having trouble learning to read. His teachers say he must try harder, but however hard Johnny tries, he still has trouble reading. Rumors spread that Johnny is lazy, or stupid, or both. Then someone realizes Johnny has Congenital Word Blindness, better known as dyslexia, which these days is a widely-acknowledged learning disorder. In many progressive communities that diagnosis opens the door to sympathy, understanding, and resources developed to help Johnny deal with his disability (in the UK, dyslexia is classed as a disability under the Equality Act of 2010). Whether or not this scenario rings any bells will de

Tone Deaf Genetics

The shaming of amusiacs for being weak-willed individuals who can't sing in tune because they don't try hard enough is - I am sad to say - still a thing. Yet there is plenty of evidence that the condition has a genetic component. Consider this article out of the Department of Genetics at Stanford School of Medicine: "With some number crunching the researchers concluded that between 71 and 80% of tone deafness can be explained by genetics"  Understanding Genetics Tone Deaf Genetics . It was 60 years ago this month that my primary school teacher called me out in class and told me - and the rest of the class - that I had a 'tin ear.' She then ordered me to 'pretend to sing' when our class went on stage to sing carols during the school Christmas concert. The year after that I was told to not only mouth the words to the carols. but also pretend to play my recorder (a traditional English flute that I could never learn to play). Growing up in England, I

Knowing you have congenital amusia makes a difference

Finding out that I had amusia made a big difference to my life and I talk about some aspects of this in an article here . The point of the article is that I am thankful to know that my inability to carry a tune or learn a musical instrument is not due to laziness, sloth, or weakness of character. Those are qualities that are routinely ascribed to people with amusia. Here's some more of what I said: I’m sure I could write a whole chapter about how much it hurt to suffer those accusations, the self-recrimination and doubt that it induced. I know I could have done without the castigation of teachers who were sure I could learn to play the recorder – a rite of passage in English schools of the 1950s and 60s – if only I would apply myself. Then there’s the chapter on how frustrating it was to grow up in the sixties with a strong poetic streak but no ability to voice the songs I composed, not to mention fruitless hours failing to learn guitar. Sure, I could pose for the album cover,

Congenital amusia | Brain | Oxford Academic

Congenital amusia | Brain | Oxford Academic : In this 2002 study, "a research effort has been made to document in detail the behavioural manifestations of congenital amusia."

Difficulties with Pitch Discrimination Influences Pitch Memory Performance: Evidence from Congenital Amusia

Difficulties with Pitch Discrimination Influences Pitch Memory Performance: Evidence from Congenital Amusia : "This study examined whether or not the difficulty of pitch discrimination influences pitch retention by testing individuals with congenital amusia."

Congenital Amusia Disorder? Really?? Please...

The idea that lack of musical ability comes from lack of effort on the part of the tone deaf individual persists in some circles, including those who earn income from singing lessons. Congenital Amusia Disorder? Really?? Please.... - Singing From Scratch : Here we have a singing coach, Michael Graves, who does not accept that congential amusia is a thing: "I do not believe in the permanency of tone deafness. I believe that it is a low level of proficiency that can be overcome, not a condition." This is a great example of the attitude I have dealt with all my life: all I need to do to overcome my tin ear is to do the work. Here is the worldview that leads to that conclusion: "The only purpose most disorder labels serve is to provide the “afflicted” an easy path away from persistence and success and towards failure and acceptance." This outlook is often sustained through wilful ignorance of scientific research and twisted logic, for example: we don't know wh

Brams Online test

Not sure if we have blogged this before, but the test is worth taking. Note that it takes about 20 minutes, but we think it is time well spent: Brams Online test : "This test has been designed for people with little or no formal musical training; anyone interested can thus take the test."

Human Brains Are Sensitive To Musical Pitch, Unlike Those Of Monkeys

According to new research in the journal Nature Neuroscience: "What sounds like music to us may just be noise to a macaque monkey." Apparently, "a monkey's brain appears to lack critical circuits that are highly sensitive to a sound's pitch." Human Brains Are Sensitive To Musical Pitch, Unlike Those Of Monkeys : Shots - Health News : NPR One of the lead researchers  Sam Norman-Haignere , has also done work on amusia, like this:  Pitch-responsive cortical regions in congenital amusia (.pdf). I have emailed Sam to see if he needs more research subjects.