Source of tone deafness
August 13, 2006 8:24 PM   Subscribe

Tone deafness and musical ability - nature or nurture?

I recently met a guy who claimed to be 'tone deaf', in the popular sense; he could tell if one pitch was higher than another, but he couldn't sing a melody to save his life. He said if he tried to sing a note on key he could do it eventually but he would have to oscillate up and down a long time before he finally found it. A melody is out of the question. Interestingly the guy's a sound engineer, working with sound effects in movies, and clearly has a good ear. He just can't sing.

As someone from a musical family who has never had much trouble singing on key, it is hard for me to understand how someone could not be able to sing. But it's pretty clear that there are many people out there who are hopeless.

His theory is that singing ability is entirely dependant on your childhood. His parents never sang, and thus he never sang, and never learned how. And like learning a second langauge, it's easy in childhood but as an adult it would take a lot of hard work. Whereas for me, my parents 'taught' me how to sing by singing to me and encouraging me to sing as soon as I could talk. Thus singing is as easy as speaking English.

I wonder if this is the case? Or is there a purely genetic component? Or perhaps both? Where does musical ability come from?
posted by PercussivePaul to Society & Culture (20 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
Anecdotal evidence in favor of nurture rather than nature: I have a friend who claims that one or both (I can't remember) of her parents are tone deaf or close to it, but that she and several of her sisters have perfect pitch. She and her sisters all took violin lessons from a very young age (2 or 3).
posted by needs more cowbell at 8:30 PM on August 13, 2006

Nature gives you the genes, but nurture takes advantage of that rather important organ inside your head, and the brain trumps genes almost every time.
posted by pmbuko at 8:53 PM on August 13, 2006

Meh. I was raised in a 'musicless' home and am now a musician. so.

Anybody can learn to sing and play music.
posted by Baby_Balrog at 8:54 PM on August 13, 2006

I heard a scientist talk about "tone deafness" once who said that actual tone deafness is an incredibly rare psysiological condition, worthy of being written up à la "The Man Who Mistook His Wife For A Hat".

Your friend can tell if one pitch is higher than another, Q.E.D. he isn't tone deaf in that sense.

Is he tone deaf in the sense that he can't modulate his voice to make it go up and down the way he wants it to? If so, he should be speaking rather like a deaf person, because many of the skills necessary to sing properly: pitch, phrasing, rhythm, etc., are also used for speech. Presumably he doesn't speak like that or you'd have mentioned it.

So, I'm coming down 100% on the side of nurture, with a side order of "he's embarrassed".

If he weren't in the sound business, with a keen ear and interest in sound and music, he'd have less of an emotional reaction to hearing himself sing badly.
posted by AmbroseChapel at 8:56 PM on August 13, 2006

Best answer: A [2001] study of musically gifted and tone deaf twins shows your ability to judge musical pitch is largely determined by your genes:
We used a twin study to investigate the genetic and environmental contributions to differences in musical pitch perception abilities in humans. We administered a Distorted Tunes Test (DTT), which requires subjects to judge whether simple popular melodies contain notes with incorrect pitch, to 136 monozygotic twin pairs and 148 dizygotic twin pairs. The correlation of DTT scores between twins was estimated at 0.67 for monozygotic pairs and 0.44 for dizygotic pairs. Genetic model-fitting techniques supported an additive genetic model, with heritability estimated at 0.71 to 0.80, depending on how subjects were categorized, and with no effect of shared environment. DTT scores were only weakly correlated with measures of peripheral hearing. This suggests that variation in musical pitch recognition is primarily due to highly heritable differences in auditory functions not tested by conventional audiologic methods.
A group study of adults afflicted with a music-specific disorder.

A discrete region of the monkey brain that processes pitch.


Musical Difficulties Are Rare: A Study of "Tone Deafness" among University Students

Genetic Studies of Tone Deafness (This study is currently recruiting patients.)

According to a study appearing in the current [as of 09/2005] issue of Annals of Neurology, people with amusia, the scientific term for tone deafness, have abnormal activity in the right side of the brain.

Regarding your friend:
Despite popular misconceptions, tone deafness has nothing to do with an inability to sing, Stewart said: "Many people struggle to hit the right notes but, unlike amusics, they can hear when they are off key. "People with amusia can't sing, but they aren't aware of this unless their friends or family have told them. The idea that you can have a good ear for music while being completely unable to sing comes as a surprise to many people."
posted by orthogonality at 9:11 PM on August 13, 2006 [1 favorite]

Here's my anecdotal vote for nature. I love music and spend most of my waking hours with it on. As a kid, I studied piano, trumpet and saxophone, and sang along in church every Sunday. My mom sang to me when I was very little. (She taught early childhood education and would practice tons of kids' songs on the autoharp.) I've tested high in short-term memory for rhythm and melody, and average in the pitch discrimination. Yet I can't hold a tune to save my life. Not being able to sing is extremely frustrating for me, and I do try.

To respond to AmbroseChapel. I can modulate my voice, certainly. I can keep up with "Happy Birthday" or the national anthem but I can't keep the notes from wandering all over the place and getting hopelessly off key. When I've studied an instrument, I couldn't feel my way through a melody in order to figure out the notes or play it by ear. Playing was like doing math exercises: hit the right notes in the right sequence for the right amount of time. Easy enough to do, but I never really enjoyed it.

Joe Meek is a celebrated case of a producer/songwriter who was tone deaf (in the popular sense). He also couldn't read music or play an instrument. Here's an article about him with some mp3's. Try "Telstar" or "The Beat of My Heart."
posted by hydrophonic at 9:28 PM on August 13, 2006

Best answer: I think orthogonality has got it; it's nature first, augmented by nurture.

Anecdotal evidence, FWIW. My mother was completely tone deaf (in terms of being able to sing on pitch), but was a competent organist, and learned to play violin as a girl. She was a terrible singer, though, and try as she might, she never learned to overcome it, although she enjoyed singing so much, the rest of us family let her, although we often quietly left the room. In all my life, I have never heard a singer with less tonal sensitivity than my mother. Nothing was both sadder and happier than hearing my mother try to sing Christmas carols, which she loved to do as she played her organ, so errantly off-key she could empty the room of holiday spirited strangers in a couple of minutes.

My second wife was a professional musician, and like a lot of pros, had learned relative pitch. She had actually taken this ability so far as to be able emulate perfect pitch. She was an oboist, and used to giving the tuning "A" for the orchestras with whom she played, but unless she had a head cold, had long since dispensed with using her tuning fork herself. She simply knew her horn extremely well, and "knew" when she had a perfect A440 or not.

Her first husband, however, was a talented composer, and a trombonist, who was born with absolute or "perfect" pitch. He would constantly and easily find tonal components in street and industrial noise, characterize them as a note or a chord or chords, and if I took recordings and did spectrum analysis, I would invariably find his hearing of pitch components correct. He could also be relied on not to miss the fact that noises did not have a dominant pitch component, as for him, they had no discernable "pitch," and were just noise. His was not a happy world, however; to hear him tell it, the world was mostly out of tune, and often gratingly so. For him to walk about in a city was to be assaulted constantly by non-musical noise, much of which still had pitch components he heard as out of tune. The squeal of brakes, many automotive noises, most mechanically generated noises, and quite a bit of human speech, taken as background noise, were to him, quite fatiguing. He also was an unhappy trombone player, who frequently played in jazz and Dixieland bands, where he could damp his inner ear with copious amounts of alcohol, when his less attuned fellows wore on him. More than once, I picked him up out of our front yard, where he'd fallen down trying to get to our front door, only to hear his drunken excuse about getting sopped so he wouldn't mind "the damn trumpet player" that night.
posted by paulsc at 9:45 PM on August 13, 2006 [3 favorites]

I spent years of my youth on various instruments, so there definitely was some training. But I suspect my natural aptitude is on the low end of the scale.

I took an online test that told me I was not truly tone deaf. But I do have a lot harder time with music than most people-- I can't maintain a pitch to save my life. In college a friend tried to teach me to tune a guitar and was surprised by my inability to tell which of two notes was higher.
posted by justkevin at 9:47 PM on August 13, 2006

Having perfect pitch doesn't have much to do with singing ability afaik. I have perfect pitch and can't sing a note. Well, I can sing a single note but that's about it. Otoh, I can tune any instrument for you in no time at all.
posted by fshgrl at 9:47 PM on August 13, 2006

Another vote for nurture. I went to a summer camp where we sang a lot, and I can sing on key almost all the time, and my sister went to another camp where they didn't sing, and though our voices are so similar that our parents can't tell us apart on the phone, she can't sing her way out of a paper bag.

Improvement is definitely possible. One friend started off so bad that she didn't even hear how off tune she was, and with practice she's been able to hear it and now even sing well most of the time. On the way though, there was definitely a lot of that modulation to find the right note.
posted by rmless at 10:32 PM on August 13, 2006

Hmmmm... I would have to say, I'd vote for my dad being close to tone-deaf, whether or not it is a "real" condition. I'm sure he can tell a bird sings higher than a base beat coming from a sub... but if he hears any two notes anywhere near close to pitch, he'd be hopeless to tell you which was higher or lower. His mom played the piano, so I wonder if it really was a lack of nurture? He likes music, but pitch is something far, far from his abilities.

I, on the other hand have tried very hard to contradict the lack of singing ability in my family. I have taken lessons from several voice teachers, all of whom have informed me that I'm hopeless. I played the viola from 6th to 9th grade and gave up because I was never able to learn how to tune my own instrument. I can hear pitch via resonating. I have, at times in my life been able to tune my ear so that I could better hear pitch, and there are many techniques that I have found that have helped me get better. I believe I can learn to sing, still. Mainly because I'm one of those people that if told I can't do something, I'll find a way. However, I have to say that a fairly good friend of mine goes to Berkley school of music and is the most amazing musician I have ever met. He can pick up and learn to use almost any instrument in less than a day. Singing has never been an issue for him, especially not pitch, as with this poster. I was in a musical play when I was six or so and had plenty of opportunities to be exposed to more music and singing, yet still, I'm in my late twenties, and continue to dream of being able to sing.

So, sure, nuture may be a big part of it, but I'd have to say nature also takes a huge chunk of the cake. For some people music and tone in general is much, much easier. Their ears and that part of their brain is more sensitive or something.
posted by Summer1158 at 11:03 PM on August 13, 2006

Nature. I remember the frustrating process of teaching a friend how to play guitar - an instrument I taught myself how to play after becoming bored with the saxophone.

She asked me what to do about strum patterns, because she was not strumming correctly to the songs she was attempting to play. This was a problem I'd never even thought of, let alone thought how to teach correctly. I'd always just strummed by ear. I didn't know how else to say it, or teach it.
posted by jimmythefish at 11:53 PM on August 13, 2006

Best answer: Singing is largely a physical skill. People who don't sing a lot, and didn't sing as children, are rarely good it. That has nothing at all to do with 'tone deafness'. It has everything to do with having the muscles in your throat, chest and diaphragm be in good shape, able to push air at a controlled speed and pressure through your mouth.

Being able to sing and being able to distinguish pitch are two different skills. Everything I've understood from music educators is that the actual condition of 'tone deafness' is almost nonexistent, as noted above. Pitch awareness can be trained. When I first learned to play and tune a guitar as a teenager, it took me hours to tune. I still go back and forth making fine adjustments to pitch because it can be quite difficult to tell close pitches apart. However, it is a teachable and learnable skill, so it can't be attributable to nature alone. In fact, pitch awareness comprises much of the basic beginning musical education curriculum.

As with any ability, some people have more aptitude than others. Learning about music by singing and playing is sufficient for some people to develop strong skills, which they often then enhance by further work, training, and education. For others, more directed instruction is required. I'd compare this to art -- some people learn to draw easily and enhance their naturally strong aptitude through practice and training. But others with less aptitude can still be taught to draw - and quite well. Saying you 'can't sing' or are 'tone deaf' is just the same thing as saying you 'can't draw' or 'can't cook.' It means only that you require practice and training to become better at it.
posted by Miko at 7:08 AM on August 14, 2006 [1 favorite]

I grew up with plenty of opportunities in music from a young age and I am still hopeless at it.

I fail to see anyone actually showing any evidence towards nurture, because if you grew up "in a musical household" that generally means you inherited talent, being as you tend to grow up around, you know, your parents.

It's more fun to say "I can do this because of this EFFORT I put forth and because I have GREAT PARENTS" than "I'm lucky" but I don't see any evidence that it's actually the case.

I had a German professor and when he was growing up, everyone (in the German American community) was expected to take up music, and you know what? Without the genetic self-selection of contemporary "musical families", most of them failed at it pretty miserably.
posted by dagnyscott at 9:21 AM on August 14, 2006

Tossing in my anecdotal $.02--I would tend to support the idea of tone-deafness being primarily decided by nature. My parents are both multi-instrument musicians, with my father teaching music out of the house. Due to this, I grew up with an extremely musical upbringing; I was playing violin by the time I was four or five and had barely learned my ABC's before I was learning sheet music. However, I am almost completely useless when it comes to tone. In fact, I ended up with percussion as my main focus in music, because, despite years of musical experience, I can not for the life of me tune an instrument. With years of practice (including a five year stint as an oboist, where you are essentially required to actively and continually match pitch when playing), I can now generally tell tone, and I can very easily spot when someone is playing out of tune with the rest of an ensemble, but I'm still hearing tone at a beginner level. And let me tell you, singing is flat out.

My brother, however, who had an almost identical upbringing to mine in terms of music (except that he chose high school orchestra over high school band), is the complete opposite, and for him, it comes without trying. He's gifted with a natural ear for tone, and let me tell you, I would kill to have the ability that he does. But he and I had the same inundation with music from birth, which seems to rule out tone-deafness as purely a product of nurture.
posted by internet!Hannah at 9:34 AM on August 14, 2006

75% Nature 25% Nuture

Some people are just naturals, I don't think anyone would dispute that. That being said musical ability can most definately be acquired...note that I didn't say taught or learned. I myself struggled for a long time but eventually it "clicked". Like an epiphany. I still cannot sing but my guitar playing went from terrible to pretty good almost overnight once I figured out what people with "perfect pitch" (or at least a "good ear") were listening for.

Most people hear the amalgamation of all the sounds. Musicians need to be able to separate the sounds. I now listen mostly for vibratory fluctuations rather than the exact note. It's like calculus, you can never know exactly, but you know you are approaching zero to a point that there is no detectable distinction. I can now tune a guitar as good or better than a (common/cheap) tuner.

As for singing, I simply can't control my voice to the extent I can control my instrument. Naturally, I'm sure I could overcome this with practice if I had any interest in singing.
posted by gRm at 12:32 PM on August 14, 2006

Response by poster: Fascinating answers. Thanks guys.
posted by PercussivePaul at 1:33 PM on August 14, 2006

The Mysteries of Perfect Pitch
posted by dragonsi55 at 2:28 PM on August 14, 2006

Yet another probably boring anecdote...

My mother was a professional singer; I think she would have liked me to be the same. Instead I ended up specialising in oboe and composition (with a side of piano). Music (and singing)was an integral part of my early life - long car journeys when I was little would be whiled away singing nursery rhymes, rounds, songs from the shows, etc.

I've had a great ear for pitch since I can remember (aural dictation and its ilk was always a breeze) and by the time I got to music college, although I wasn't a vocalist, I was drafted into all the choral groups (particularly the ones that specialised in C20th atonal stuff) just because I could reliably sing all the right notes in the right order. Something like sight-singing quarter-tones, whilst a nightmare for the vocal faculty, I considered a great intellectual exercise and a nice relaxing way to spend an hour or so.

That said, it was made very clear to me that I had an really mediocre singing voice and I couldn't really argue - although I had a big range, I just sounded like a (finely tuned) foghorn. After a while, I'd be asked to go to rehearsals (so I could train up the singers) but not the actual performances.

I grew to hate my singing voice with a passion and being kicked around by divas who couldn't sing in tune if their life depended on it was the final straw. Haven't sung a note in anger for over ten years now.

Once upon a time I could control the pitch of my voice absolutely. Strangely, though, I wouldn't feel so confident these days.

In quiet moments, when I dare to sing to myself, the frustration of my voice not responding to what my ears demand is so great I guess it blocks my vocal chords. I've rather lamely admitted defeat.

Maybe your sound engineer buddy has a similar problem? Having such finely tuned ears, and knowing that he can't replicate exactly what he wants, he's psychologically decided that discretion is the better part of valour.

Here endeth the boring anecdote.
posted by dogsbody at 6:15 PM on August 14, 2006

I love music, grew up in a house where music was always on, and I sing all the time... just always off key. Ever since I was a child my ability to properly reproduce a note on an instrument (I've taken violin and flute lessons) is nil, same goes with singing. I have a large music collection and I have a pretty good ear when it comes to listening, but I cannot reproduce any music adequately, makes me wonder how bad it will be when I start singing my daughtet to sleep (cringe).
posted by Vindaloo at 5:26 AM on August 22, 2006

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