What's amusing about amusia?

Welcome to , a place to find out more about something called amusia, a condition that can make it impossible 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 emotional 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 pl

Big new study finds "sex differences in music perception are negligible"

This is a fascinating finding for all humans, not just amusics. For a start, the scale of the study is impressive: "a test of music processing ability in 360,009 men and 194,291 women from 208 countries." And the findings favored the hypothesis of "no sex difference in general musical ability" (with a Bayes Factor of 0.6 for the statistically inclined).  As the authors put it: "These results suggest that it is unlikely that music evolved in the context of sexual selection." In other words, our musical ability did not evolve to enhance our appeal to the opposite sex, although this "is in contrast to music-related traits in non-human animals" and in contrast to some "other non-musical human traits."  The bottom line, based on this huge sample, is that musical ability offers, in terms of selection "no consistent advantage for either sex." And somehow, as an amusic, I find that surprisingly reassuring. It suggests that my inabilit

Congenital amusia and problems singing a familiar song

As you may know, "congenital amusia is a neurogenetic disorder of pitch perception that may also compromise pitch production." This paper looks at how this relates to signing songs, new or familiar, with or without words. Among the findings: "The current study demonstrates that deviating from target duration and relative time matching patterns as well as making many time errors is more often than not the case in congenital amusia regardless of whether the content to be imitated is more or less familiar."  See  Song Imitation in Congenital Amusia | Music Perception | University of California Press  (full paper accessible here ).

The Nature and Nurture of Congenital Amusia: A Twin Case Study

Key finding from my perspective as an amusic: "This twin case study highlights that congenital amusia is not due to insufficient exposure to music in childhood. The exposure to music of the twin pair was as comparable as it can be for two individuals. Yet, one twin has amusia, while the other does not." Practical implication for amusics: you can stop blaming your parents for not playing enough music in the house when you were little. I will be apologizing to my mum for all those times I tried to make her feel guilty for my lacking of musical talent. Read the full article here .

Amusia testing: a detailed analysis

Some serious work on testing for amusia is covered in this long-but-worth-reading academic article: Revising the diagnosis of congenital amusia with the Montreal Battery of Evaluation of Amusia . I am now looking at getting myself "lab-tested."  There are several ongoing amusia-related studies in the UK so I may be able to find a lab test opportunity via one of these. While I tested "positive" for amusia on several online tests, the article cited above suggests that lab testing may be more accurate. Plus, it appears there a different flavours of amusia, so to speak. I am particularly interested in knowing if my sense of rhythm is normal or not (I think I have a good sense of rhythm, but my partner has suggested that march to "the beat of a different drum"). One of the ways in which learning about congenital amusia has helped me is the notion that difficulty in following a tune is due to memory issues. This helps me understand my feeling that I can follow a

Neurobiology of Congenital Amusia: Trends in Cognitive Sciences

An interesting way to describe amusa: "The core deficit of congenital amusia is characterized by a lack of awareness of acquired musical pitch knowledge." And good to know that studying those of us with "lifelong musical pitch deficits...can help to reveal what is specific to music processing at all levels from behavior and brain to genes." Neurobiology of Congenital Amusia: Trends in Cognitive Sciences

Revising the diagnosis of congenital amusia with the Montreal Battery of Evaluation of Amusia

This 2015 article presents: "a critical survey of the prevalent usage of the Montreal Battery of Evaluation of Amusia (MBEA; Peretz et al., 2003) to assess congenital amusia, a neuro-developmental disorder that has been claimed to be present in 4% of the population (Kalmus and Fry, 1980)." Read the full text here here . One of the conclusions is that online tests for amusia are not as reliable as one would hope. Testing in a laboratory environment is preferable. I have put "find a list of labs that offer amusia tests" on my list of things to be done.

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 amusic, 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.) FYI, an  amusic is a person who has amusia, which is "a musical disorder that appears mainly as a defect in processing pitch but also encompasses musical memory and recognition" — Wikipedia . You may also see the word  amusiac used for a person with amusia. So here is more of what the article 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 m

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. The Scenarios of Johnny and Barry Many people may be 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). Here's anothe

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