The Intriguing Truth about Tone-deafness


Ever been to a karaoke bar with colleagues and wondered why Dave from Accounting was so shamelessly chuffed with his rendition of Whitney Houston’s “I Will Always Love You” – even though he didn’t hit a single note?

Woman singing badly

Believe it or not, it’s probably because he had no idea he sounded bad. Chances are, Dave from Accounting is tone-deaf. This means that not only can Dave not actively hit the intended notes, but he can’t actually hear these notes correctly to begin with.


What does being tone-deaf entail?

Technically, tone-deafness is the inability to hear the difference between varying musical notes (pitch changes). So while a person with regular hearing will hear a pleasant melody, a tone-deaf person will hear a musical mess. This means that Dave from Accounting may actually be able to reproduce the tune he hears perfectly, but that what he is hearing sounds, well… different.

Man singing

However, “A very small proportion of the population are truly tone-deaf,” according to Dr Daniel Mullensiefen of Goldsmiths University of London. Many, many people struggle to produce or mimic the correct pitch (i.e. are poor singers). The difference here is that these people can hear the music correctly and can accurately tell the difference between notes. They will hear that their own singing is not in line with what they are trying to achieve, but they battle to produce the correct notes themselves. This can be improved with musical training. However, a person who is legitimately tone-deaf may not be able to improve their singing regardless of how much time is spent training.


What causes tone-deafness?

It appears those who struggle with tone-deafness have their genes to thank for the condition. Tone-deafness is believed to be largely hereditary. Studies have shown that identical twins tend to receive similar results when taking pitch tests. Essential to understanding the cause of tone-deafness is the understanding that the problem doesn’t lie with the reception of the pitch, but rather how the brain is processing that sound. Ninety percent of people who are medically tone-deaf appear to have a significantly smaller group of nerve fibres called the arcuate fasciculus. These fibres serve to relay information regarding sound to areas of the brain that are involved in reproducing that sound.


Is there a cure?

Due to its medical roots, studies have been conducted in an effort to find a cure for this condition. Recently, a study took place that aimed to test the effect of mood-stabilising medication on an individual’s ability to learn new skills.

Lady offering a microphone

The drug used was valproic acid (VPA) – known for its ability to treat conditions like epilepsy by changing how the brain reacts to specific stimuli. Researchers and participants were based in the UK, Canada and France. These participants were required to take VPA and then trained to identify specific musical pitches. The result? Participants who took VPA were better able to correctly identify pitches than those participants who were given a placebo drug.


The tone-deaf test

Thanks to the internet, we can now find the answer to pretty much anything online. This includes answers to questions like “Am I tone deaf”.  There are a number of tests online, like this one by the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders (NIDCD,) that allow you to test yourself and discover whether or not you are tone deaf. 


How to handle horrible singing

Woman with headache

If you spend time with somebody who struggles to hit those notes, try not to squash their sense of enthusiasm. They have every right to belt out the latest hits – just as much as you do. Consider investing in a simple pair of earplugs like these ones to wear around the house for when necessary. An added bonus? Earplugs protect your ears from overexposure to other potentially harmful noises. This can help prevent you from losing your hearing later on in life.



For more information, resources and a wide selection of ear care products, visit the PC Werth group sites (JUST4EARSPERFECTfit and SoundForSchools).

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