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).

Image based on photo by Jason Rosewell on Unsplash
Whether or not this scenario rings any bells will 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. Countries that follow a British education model tend to be at the top end of the scale, so to speak.

Growing up in England in the fifties and sixties you 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 - until around age 14 - 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 on reflection 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. Born and raised in England, Barry was 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 said he must try harder, but however hard Barry tried, he just couldn't carry or reproduce a tune. Rumors spread that Barry was lazy, or stupid, or both. Social shame and a sense of failure accompanied events like school assembly, church services, birthday parties. and school concerts.

Just think what a difference it would make for Barrys 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, called congenital amusia. 

Sadly, a lack of awareness of congenital amusia means that when you tell people that you have congenital amusia, you can see some of 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 bring us - at long last - 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.

Further Reading:


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