Are you tone deaf?
January 19, 2002 12:27 AM   Subscribe

Are you tone deaf? The official name for tone deafness, or the inability to distinguish between tones, is "amusia." NPR has been running a series of programs lately dealing with musical disabilities and researchers are convinced it is due to genetics if there is no physical damage. RealPlayer required to hear the tone tests on the site. (Link spotted at
posted by Lynsey (24 comments total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Does anyone remember those trucks that came by your elementary school to test your hearing? Every student took their turn to go into a booth and listen for pitch and push a button. I deliberately failed miserably, but nothing was done, so I later suspected in middle school that the whole thing was a government conspiracy to get into kids' heads at an early age. After all, neither my parents nor I signed a release obliging me to go through with the test; our teacher herded us like sheep to the truck.
posted by Mach3avelli at 1:01 AM on January 19, 2002

The pitch test linked at that bottom of the story looks interesting. (Has it been linked here before? Fewer than a hundred times?)

It lists 20 popular songs that most of you probably have heard a number of times (YMCA by the Village People, Brick in the Wall by Pink Floyd, Wild Thing by the Troggs, etc.). For each one, there are five short, identical segments of the recording to listen to, except that only one of the five is at the original pitch; the other four have been raised or lowered a pitch or two. You have to select the right one. The answers are at the bottom of the page.
posted by pracowity at 3:57 AM on January 19, 2002

Hehe... I deliberately failed mine as well, Mach3avelli. I always tried to skew just about any test, poll or information gathering exercise in school, for no reason in particular.

I wonder how common this is.
posted by dong_resin at 4:35 AM on January 19, 2002

come to think of it, mach3, neither my parents nor i ever signed a release before i was subjected to any test in school. alas, i suppose the whole educational system is "a government conspiracy to get into kids' heads at an early age."

i'm impressed that you guys were rebellious enough in grade school to dis those tests. me, i (unintentionally) failed a wide range of tests including but not limited to: hearing, vision, physical aptitude, spelling, math and personality. (however, i am proud to report i passed the air raid drills with flying colors, and to this day duck quickly under my desk whenever i hear a loud siren.)
posted by jellybuzz at 6:25 AM on January 19, 2002

So you all are the ones that made my hearing look so good in grade school! I wasn't anything near the trouble maker and tried my hardest to hear those faint tingles of tone. I think I was afraid that something would have been done to me if I failed or looked deaf. I had visions of being hauled into some 'special' office a few times a week to get my innards looked over.

It doesn't seem that long ago, but it still was the mid 70s when this was going on. Then, nothing required a release form at school except being sent away to camp Silverton for the weekend.

Remember when they started distributing the fluoride twice a week, made everyone gargle and swish for thirty seconds and spit into a common bucket? Those were the days.
posted by YohonTheLarge at 7:26 AM on January 19, 2002

cool! i've always been curious about perfect pitch.

i took the test pracowity linked and got 16 out of 20. well, sort of. perhaps i could have gotten 17, but the answer for #4 is wrong - the test is an REM song but the answer is for shania twain. i guess i just have pretty ok pitch.

the bit about Florence Foster Jenkins is fascinating. listening to her singing i'd say she had amusia in spades, although with today's pitch-correcting technology i doubt she'd be any worse off than a cher or britney spears.
posted by modge at 8:20 AM on January 19, 2002

By the title of your post, I thought you were insulting me!
posted by Counselco at 8:44 AM on January 19, 2002

I failed one of those hearing tests once and they didn't just "do nothing about it." Which was lucky for me. I guess I had flat ear canals that would get clogged with earwax.
posted by geoff. at 9:12 AM on January 19, 2002

What I can't figure out is, are you tone deaf if you are able to hear the musical tones, but not able to duplicate them with your voice? My husband can easily recognize songs, and he had no problem on the tone tests at the NPR story site, but he can't sing a recognizable melody. Can't even come close. Is this some kind of "tone deaf light"?
posted by JanetLand at 9:41 AM on January 19, 2002

Okay, I'm going to get on my soapbox for this one. "Tone deafness" is a highly misleading term, which is way overused. It implies that there is something physically wrong (and unfixable) with the ear which makes a person unable to hear pitch. If that were the case, all songs would sound exactly the same to you, except for the lyrics. Instrumental tunes would sound exactly the same as each other, except for rhythmic patterns. There may be people who experience that, but not most of the people who are called tone deaf. The truth of the matter is that there are a couple (actually more, but I'm simplifying) of processing skills in the brain for pitch/melody - one for listening/decoding a series of pitches, another for recreating that melody from memory (singing). These skills are found in a normal distribution in the population - some people are amazingly good even with no training, some are really bad. Typically, anyone who is significantly below average in either skill is called "tone deaf" and discouraged from singing.

The good news is that both these skills can be greatly improved by practice and hard work. When I started playing music 15 years ago, I was pretty bad in the first skill and amazingly bad in the second. (My rhythmic skills sucked too, but that's another story.) Fortunately for me, my ear was so bad that I couldn't hear how bad I was - I thought I was about average. I was also fortunate to have an environment with some very tolerant people who encouraged me even though I must have been hurting their ears. (I found out later that many considered my so tone deaf that I could never learn.) After a few years, my ear had improved enough so I could actually hear how bad I was, but by then I had too much time & energy invested in my music - I wasn't going to give up. I ended up in a band with some friends of mine playing for fun. The other members were much more talented than I was & gave me a lot of firm guidance in the early years. After a while, they started having to lead me less. Eventually I became as good as the others. At this point, we've been playing out about 10 years & we're pretty good. I'm not a virtuoso, but musicians from other bands will often come up & tell me that they really like my playing. Of course I'd be better if I had started out with natural talent & spent 15 years of work on it, but hey, I've got other areas of natural strength.

The bad news is most music education is aimed at the people with naturally good ears, so if you're naturally weak you may need to spend a lot of time training yourself. I recommend learning how to play scales on an instrument such as piano or guitar, then singing along with the instrument. Tape yourself for feedback. Be patient & persistent.
posted by tdismukes at 10:49 AM on January 19, 2002 [7 favorites]

Thanks, tdismukes, I might just do that. My sister's getting a guitar, and I've seen tuning tools that will tell me what note I'm playing, which is my biggest problem.

I'm one of those people that can hear complicated rythms and tonal changes, and loves music in all forms ('cept rap, but that ain't music or art) but I can't reproduce notes or rythms if my life depended on it. I can't sing worth a darn, and while I can recognize tonal changes and even snatches of songs, I can't connect notes with their letters... which makes it hard to play any musical insturment. Your post gave me a little hope. :)
posted by SpecialK at 11:22 AM on January 19, 2002

I was sitting here, taking that test, thinkin', "Man, how easy...what kind of fool can't get these?" Well, I graded it. I'm the fool. I did so poorly, I'm suprised I can speak.
posted by Doug at 11:29 AM on January 19, 2002

SpecialK didn't actually write a comment in this thread, because I can't relate to the content of it, and I don't understand the phrasing that was used.
posted by dong_resin at 11:49 AM on January 19, 2002

SpecialK - Start out with simple rhythms & melodic changes & build from there. Skill in reproducing melodies & rhythms is not like playing back a tape of something your recorded. It's actually more of a creative process - once your brain understands the root elements of music and how they relate, it can reconstruct the piece you are trying to play or sing. Reading music is absolutely not necessary to be a good musician, but it's very useful - especially when you're studying on your own. It's not as hard as you think to learn the basics. Feel free to e-mail me for exercise suggestions if you get stuck.
posted by tdismukes at 12:05 PM on January 19, 2002

It sounds like a lot of different conditions come under the umbrella of tone deafness. And did you know it's "tone-deaf" not "tone deaf"? Me neither. Couple definitions at and one at Merriam Webster, excuse me, Merriam-Webster. All seem to lean towards hearing rather than singing.

And thanks for the details, tdismukes. I once read an old short story by Dorothy Canfield called "I Thought I Heard Them Singing" that basically says the same thing -- kids are kicked out of the Christmas choir because they can't sing, and Mom spends hours and hours at the piano teaching them how. I had always wondered if that could really happen. Perhaps I'll make a project out of hubby . . . .
posted by JanetLand at 12:23 PM on January 19, 2002

Here's some stuff about amusia's opposite, absolute pitch.
posted by Charmian at 12:27 PM on January 19, 2002

Now hold on... I'm confused. And this might take me a while to straighten out...

I've always thought that I had something I called "relative pitch," which means that I can hear and reproduce differences in pitch. Also, I can match pitches, and sing a note if it is given to me. But if you give me a note, I can't tell if it's a B or a C or whatever. And so I fail that test pracowity linked. I didn't bother, after I had no way of knowing which choice was right from each set.

Now, that test requires perfect pitch, right? And that's rather rare, isn't it? I was under the impression that if a song was originally written and performed in a certain key, most people (i.e., those without perfect pitch) wouldn't know if it were subsequently (say, a few days later) performed in a different key. Is this correct?

Getting back to amusia, though... What happens to people with amusia in countries with tonal languages? They wouldn't be able to understand anything, would they? Are there any cases of that?

I'm just full of questions... Aren't I? ;-)
posted by whatnotever at 1:40 PM on January 19, 2002

19 of 20, whoohoo I rock! The only one I missed was #2, Roy Orbison's "Pretty Woman"- picked "B" instead of "D"! Now, I play it in my head and can see how I messed up, but it's odd, since the one I should have missed was that "Oops Upside your Head" song- uh, I vaguely recall hearing that maybe once before.

Most of them were easy because the one that was right was the only one that sounded 'true', while the rest were off or sounded wrong, either flat or tinny. Not to mention if you just start hearing the song in your head before you click play- so as not to confuse yourself with a relative pitch- you center the right tone in your head so the ones that aren't correct sound off immediately.
posted by hincandenza at 2:49 PM on January 19, 2002

whatnotever - You are right. "Perfect" or "absolute" pitch is much rarer than relative pitch & harder to develop if you haven't been blessed with it naturally. It can be improved with practice, but I'm still much better at relative than absolute pitch. Good news is that perfect pitch is not really required to be a good musician - though I certainly wouldn't mind being much better at it than I am. Regarding your second question - I doubt you find too many cases of amusia causing a problem for native speakers of tonal languages. By definition, those people will be practicing their tonal comprehension skills all day every day - sort of like me practicing music 10 hours per day every day from infancy instead of an hour per day from the age of 22. If there are any linguistics experts on this thread who can verify or deny this, I'd love to hear from them.
posted by tdismukes at 3:20 PM on January 19, 2002

Not a linguistics expert, but I have read that people with perfect pitch are found more frequently among tonal language speakers than atonal ones. (there was an article in the New Yorker awhile back, but that publication sadly doesn't make its articles available online).
posted by Charmian at 3:40 PM on January 19, 2002

That was an interesting test. I got 16 out of 20 right (counting the Shania/REM mixup where I picked the "right" answer). On the four I got wrong, I was one step flat on all of them. Three were instrumentals, and one had voice.

Since that test is now closed, does anyone know if the statistics of the test are shown anywhere (males better/worse than females, age groups, etc.)?
posted by AstroGuy at 12:13 AM on January 20, 2002

I got a big 19 out of 20.
Which would be more exciting for me if I didn't have the exact same voice as Cornfed Pig from "Duckman."

I sing exactly the way Mariah Carey doesn't.
posted by dong_resin at 5:52 AM on January 20, 2002

If it's any consolation, d_r, you probably act exactly the way she doesn't, too.
posted by hincandenza at 11:33 PM on January 20, 2002

One of the instructors at the Florida West Coast Youth Symphony tried to tell us if we couldn't *sing* something in tune, then we couldn't *play* it in tune.

I proved her wrong. :)

I can't whistle or sing in tune to save my life, but at least I *know* when I'm off key. I suspect that, with practice (which I don't find worthwhile) I could improve that.

I know that relative pitch improves with practice... the violin is a great instrument for that since you have to (A) tune by fifths, and (B) hit notes without frets to guide you.

I can (or at least, could) also distinguish A440 from other tones, within a few hertz... it's the standard tone that orchestras tune to. But I wouldn't say I have absolute pitch aside from that.
posted by Foosnark at 10:41 AM on January 21, 2002

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