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. 

Image based on photo by Jason Rosewell on Unsplash
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 another scenario, involving Barry, a lad who had trouble learning to sing or play an instrument, two skills held in very high esteem in Barry's native country, England. His teachers kept saying he must try harder, but however hard Barry tried, he just couldn't carry or reproduce a tune. He was called "tin ears" and labelled "tone deaf."

Rumors spread that Barry was lazy or somehow lacking in moral character. Social shame and a sense of failure accompanied events like school assembly, church services, birthday parties. and school concerts. Barry watched on in frustration as friends formed bands and gave concerts, got rounds of applause and made records.

At no point does anybody say "Barry can't help being unable to sing in tune, he is wired differently, he has congenital amusia." In fact, Barry didn't get any sympathy at all. He grew up unable to play an instrument, sing in harmony, or even understand some basic musical concepts like keys and chords and harmony.

What Key is This?

To be fair to history and the people who made Barry feel bad about himself, congenital amusia was not widely known until relatively recently, It should also be noted that the extent to which you can relate to Barry's experience may depend upon where and when you grew up. To the best of my knowledge, the value and emphasis that schools place on musical ability varies widely around the world. Countries that follow an English education model tend to be at the top end of the scale, so to speak.

From my own experience, growing up in England in the fifties and sixties, I can say all children were expected to sing in school at least once a day, namely the hymn or hymns that were sung during morning assembly. There was also music class at least once a week and those classes typically involved singing.

In addition there was school choir and school concerts, participation in which earned lots of praise. Pupils who could sing well and/or play a musical instrument were held up as examples of what it meant to be a well-rounded and well-educated human being. I am under the impression that Canadian and Australian schools had a similar ethos (but would love to get more data on that).

The status of music in schools in America was apparently much lower, at least in the experience of my American-born partner who is the same age as me. In fact, she was shocked to learn of my experience, of being shamed and castigated as a child for my poor singing and failure to learn a musical instrument. She had no idea that music was such a big deal in English schools, and I can attest that most of my American friends were puzzled by just how animated I was to learn that I had congenital amusia.

Barry and Tim

Which brings us to Barry and Tim. Just think what a difference it would make for Barry to discover that a person can be born "tone deaf" and that no amount of money spent on singing lessons was going to work. It's a condition you can inherit: congenital amusia. 

Sadly, a lack of awareness of congenital amusia means that when you tell some people that you have it, you can see them harboring doubts. How long did he take lessons before he gave up? Would he have had better results with a different music coach? And as for those coaches, some still claim congenital amusia is a fake disorder (and they're happy to take money from any student they can find).

And that brings us to Tim, the star of the academic study titled Effects of vocal training in a musicophile with congenital amusia (PDF). If you don't have time to read the whole paper, just know two things. First, it describes and assesses the attempt made by one amusiac - Tim - to "train himself out of amusia through a self-imposed 18-month program of formal vocal training and practice." In other words, a documented example of a good faith effort to test the hypothesis that congenital tone deafness can be "cured."

The second thing to know is that researchers found: "While Tim showed temporary gains in his singing ability, he did not reach normal levels, and these gains faded when he was not engaged in regular lessons and practice."

In other words, and according to bunch of highly-qualified people, some of us are born without the ability to achieve normal levels of singing ability. Just knowing this can make a huge difference to those of us who have suffered from this disorder. For me, it has brought a surprising degree of satisfaction, knowing that my repeated efforts to acquire musical ability did not fail because of a lack of effort, or defect of character, or absence of intelligence.

For that, I'd like to thank Tim, and the paper's authors: Jonathan M. P. Wilbiksa, Dominique T. Vuvanc, Pier-Yves Girardd, Isabelle Peretz, and Frank A. Russo. These fine folks work at a variety of esteemed institutions, to whom I am thus grateful: the Department of Psychology, Ryerson University, Toronto, Canada; the Department of Psychology, Mount Allison University, Sackville, Canada; the Department of Psychology, Skidmore College, Saratoga Springs, NY, USA; the International Laboratory for Brain, Music and Sound Research (BRAMS), Montreal, Canada; le Département de psychologie, Université de Montréal, Montreal, Canada.

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