Have you ever heard or seen someone who just can’t sing right because they are tone-deaf? They really enjoy listening to music but they cannot sing along. When they do, it sounds like a whole lot of confusion and you wish they would just stop. They might even actually be the first to buy tickets to a concert. Here’s what you need to know about tone-deafness.


The dictionary defines tone-deaf as an adjective that describes a person as follows:

(of a person) unable to perceive differences of musical pitch accurately. Via Oxford Dictionaries

Musically speaking

With a greater understanding of the characteristics of music, a more comprehensive definition

man singing
Image Courtesy of Wikimedia

of tone-deaf is given as follows:

When a person is truly tone deaf, they are unable to tell the difference between contrasting frequencies (i.e. bass and treble sounds). However, they are still able to tell the difference between different timbres (such as a guitar vs. a violin). Via Musical U

This definition basically means that a person who is tone-deaf can listen to music but cannot distinguish the different intricacies of music.

Scientifically speaking

In scientific terms, tone-deafness is called congenital amusia. The statistics reveal that this condition is quite rare, afflicting only 4% of the population.

Research findings

Many scientists thought that the ears of the tone-deaf person could have a problem processing sounds. However, it was surprising for scientists at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to find out otherwise, during a study in 2015:

Scientists used to think that if you couldn’t differentiate music notes, there must be something wrong with your ear, but it turns out that people with congenital amusia can hear perfectly fine and the inside of their ears respond to pitch just fine. Via Newsworks

So what could the problem be? If tone-deaf people can hear well and their ears have no problem receiving sounds, what could be missing?

Sounds and the brain

The next place that the scientists looked was the brain. They wanted to find out what could be happening so that even though sounds were received, it was difficult to distinguish the different tones.

So scientists at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology started to look at the brain. Specifically, a part of the brain near the ears, called the primary auditory cortex, the first place where the notes hit the brain on their way in.

“They found nothing,” Brookshire said. “People with congenital amusia hear notes just fine, both in their ears and the [primary] auditory cortex. As far as you can tell from looking at these two areas, they aren’t tone deaf.” Via Newsworks

illustration of music background in doodle style
Image Courtesy of Wikimedia

It was even more surprising that the scientists discovered that the brain of a person who is tone-deaf could receive the signals from different tones like any other person. So the question remained, what could be the cause of tone-deafness?

The research continued…

After discovering that the brain received the tones normally, the next step was to check the area of the brain that interprets sounds. The following excerpt explains this in detail:

“The primary auditory cortex is not where sound ends in your brain. Sound is processed at much higher levels all over the brain, in many different areas. It’s probably in higher centers. It’s probably in areas of the brain where the sounds are processed and put together into a tune.”

“We do know it’s going to be somewhere in the brain,” said Brookshire. “The only question is where.” Via Newsworks

New Research

The quest for answers continued among scientists and this resulted in more research. The following post explains one of the most revealing reports about tone-deafness:

We talked to Marion Cousineau, a researcher at the International Laboratory for Brain, Music and Sound Research at the University of Montreal. She spent years working with people with amusia (or “amusics”) in the lab to get a sense of what the world sounds like to them.

She explained that it’s not that amusics’ brains cannot detect differences in pitch, but rather that they can’t consciously process the difference in the same way non-amusics can.

Cousineau says that each person she’s talked to describes their amusia — which they detect using an online test — differently. Where some people hear clanging pots and pans, for example, others hear beautiful sounds. Via Business Insider

lady singing at a concert
Image Courtesy of Wikimedia

What’s Really Happening

Scientists found out that the reason people were tone-deaf is because their brains were not aware of what they just heard. The following account gives the answer:

In other words, it appeared that amusic or not, everyone’s brains were at least picking up on the mismatched sounds. But while both the non-amusics and amusics displayed similar brain activity in the first few milliseconds after hearing the sound, only the non-amusics displayed another smattering of activity a few hundred milliseconds later. This second burst of activity in people without tone deafness, the scientists reasoned, suggested that only the brains of people who were not tone deaf were communicating the harsh tune to a higher brain area, thereby making them aware that they’d heard it.

In other words, the researchers suspect, while the brains of both groups had identified the harsh tune on some level, amusics were not aware that they’d done so. Via Business Insider


Tone-deafness is basically a lack of awareness that one has heard a different pitch in the music. This phenomenon can actually go unnoticed in the sense that a person who is tone-deaf may not even know that they are tone-deaf. It is said that it is hereditary. Therefore it is not that some people can’t sing; it is that their brain cannot process those differences in pitch, and it is not their fault at all. So give them a break and let them enjoy the music.

Featured Image: Image Credit

How to Know If You're Tone Deaf

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