The truth is, most people aren’t very good singers. Sure, we lip-synched all the songs in school choirs and the vocal parts at various religious services. Most of us will only sing in the shower or in an automobile with the windows rolled up. We always tell people we’re tone deaf, and no one ever disagrees. Statistically, one out of seven people are in fact tone deaf.
People generally think that not being able to sing well means you are tone deaf, however there are lots of people who can’t sing well that can hear the music – and all its tones and notes – just fine. The actual meaning of tone deafness is to be unable to perceive music whatsoever. When we apply the term in that sense, there are very few people who are truly tone deaf. Through testing people with music listening assessments, research shows that the actual numbers of tone deaf individuals is truly one one in twenty people. Those who truly experience tone deafness are unable to hear differences in pitch change between high and low notes, so being able to follow along with even a simple melody becomes very difficult.
The true clinical term for being tone deaf is called amusia. When an individual has been tone deaf from birth, we refer to that condition as congenital amusia. There are various tests that have been developed such as the Montreal Battery for the Evaluation of Amusia, that allow researchers to better define varying degrees of musical deficiencies. We now have the technology to use imaging tests so that doctors can look at the brains of people who are talented with music, and perhaps even play instruments, next to people who have typical musical ability levels.
A lot of researchers simply want to know how our brain works and how music impacts the human brain. To date, we have not heard of anyone seeking a tone deafness remedy. However, those doctors consumed with the study of amusia report that finding out more about this mysterious deficit could unlock the mystery of other developmental disabilities. For instance, if they can puzzle out amusia, they may learn more about learning disabilities.
The slight difference such as that between B and B-flat and F and F-sharp is a semitone, and the way music in the Western world is organized. The majority of humans are able to detect the differences between musical notes easily; in fact, many of us are able to recognize fractional changes between semitones. Differences in pitch are much more difficult for those with amusia to distinguish, and often requires a considerable tonal difference before it is detected.
Unable to make out the direction or contour of pitches, individuals who are tone deaf struggle with isolating pitches. It is the variations in pitch contour which creates the melody of all types of songs. Researchers have discovered through experimentation that the major difficulty for amusics is in attempting to pick out pitch changes within a musical phrase.
With very pronounced amusia, people cannot pick out rhythm or melody, as well as pitch. However, experiments have revealed that if music is played monotone, amusics have a better sense of the rhythm than if the music is multi-tonal. What this shows is that when a person with amusia listens to music, it is actually the variations in pitch that confuse their ability to get the rhythm of the song as well.
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