When you sing, do people cover their ears and look around for the strangled cat? And then accuse you of being tone deaf?
The good news is that while you might be a terrible singer, the chances are you’re not in the small percentage of people who are truly tone deaf – and that means there is hope.
Tone deafness, also known as amusia, is a recognised condition that means someone cannot distinguish between different pitches or tones in music, and cannot hear that their voice isn’t rising and falling with the melody when singing.
“A lot of people will say they are tone deaf but when you record their singing they can actually discriminate between tones – they’re not completely monotonic. They just might not be very good,” says Professor Sarah Wilson, Head of the School of Psychological Sciences at the University of Melbourne.
Amusia is a congenital condition, thought to affect around four per cent of the population. It’s hard-wired into the brain and some studies suggest it is genetic, and runs in families.
The condition can be confirmed by specific pitch discrimination tests, but the evidence can also be seen in the brain.
“There has been some very interesting brain imaging research looking at the fibres connecting the temporal lobe to the frontal lobe in the brain, part of what is essentially our pitch processing network,” says Professor Wilson. “People with congenital amusia have reduced density of connections on the right-hand side, compared to people without the condition.”
While having congenital amusia might not make you many friends at choir practice, it needn’t stop you enjoying music.
“People with congenital amusia can still love music and feel the social and broader emotional or physical benefits of being part of music even though they don’t necessarily appreciate the fine-grained pitch variations,” says Professor Wilson.
“It just means they experience it differently. Maybe they focus more on the rhythmic aspect, which is a very powerful cue, or the timbre. Doof-doof is a great example – it escalates and escalates, and you don’t need to have high level fine-grained pitch perception to experience the euphoria that can come with that.
“It’s a bit like people who have got a genetic difference in their colour vision. We wouldn’t preclude someone from going to museums and looking at art just because they are colour blind. They’d still experience the depth of hue and different dimensions of the art and enjoy it equally, just differently.”
So if only a small percentage of people are truly tone deaf, is there anything the poor singers among us can do to improve our performance?
It mostly is a case of practice makes perfect, says Professor Wilson. You can train your brain to discriminate between notes more accurately … which should in turn improve your ability to sing.
It’s perhaps not surprising that research by Professor Wilson and her colleague, Associate Professor Neil McLachlan, has shown that musicians are far better at identifying differences in pitch than non-musicians.
But, she says, most people can enhance their skills. “High-level pitch perception can be trained. Just actively engage in music and you can improve.
“When you think about what musicians do all day every day, they’re tuning their auditory cortex to these more and more fine-grained perceptions, and over time they show an increased volume of neurons devoted to the task.”
The brain’s ability to learn also explains why some people like modern, atonal music while to others it sounds like nails on a blackboard, or why we sometimes find music from other cultures hard to listen to.
“You haven’t learned the system of pitch relationships and harmonic structures that go with that music,” says Professor Wilson.
“It’s why orchestras often don’t play atonal music – it can lead to a drop in attendance at concerts. To get around this, they might start with Mozart and finish with Beethoven and put a bit of the new stuff in the middle as a way of training the brains of the listeners.”
It might also explain why pop musicians develop a liking for complex, more discordant jazz as they become more experienced.
“As a musician I couldn’t get enough atonal music,” says Professor Wilson, who has played piano, saxophone and guitar.
“I loved it because I was bored with Mozart. You are constantly seeking new things that will challenge your auditory cortex.”
Whether you like simple folk songs or obscure jazz, or sing in tune or completely flat, one thing is clear: music is good for you.
“There’s a growing number of studies that show that if you engage regularly in music, whether it’s active listening or playing, you’ll perform better on other cognitive tests, because music uses a broad set of networks in our brain,” says Professor Wilson.
“It uses spatial representations, it uses attention, it uses auditory processes, it uses emotions and creativity. When we put people in a scanner and look at their brains when they are listening to music, their whole brain is alight. They are using all these networks without even trying.
“There’s even literature that shows in musicians that it induces metaplasticity – because you’re engaging in this constant learning, learning new pieces, pushing yourself forward, your brain becomes more primed to learn.”
If ever there was an argument for singing in the shower – whether in tune or not – that might be it.
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