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More Definitions for tone-deaf. See the full definition for tone-deaf in the English Language Learners Dictionary.

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Listen and Sing

Other than their inability to hear music, which is most likely due to a genetic defect , the rest of an amusic's brain remains normal. The only effect is on the ability to tell different notes apart due to the separation of two key areas in the brain. Most sufferers of amusia describe music as unpleasant. Others simply refer to it as noise and find it annoying.


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This can have social implications because amusics often try to avoid music, which in many social situations is not an option. In China and other countries in which identical words have different meanings based on pitch, amusia may have a much more pronounced social and emotional impact: difficulty in speaking and understanding the language. Amusia has been classified as a learning disability that affects musical abilities.

This finding leads researchers to believe that amusia is related to dyslexia and other similar disorders. Diseases such as dyslexia and epilepsy are due to a malformation in cortical development and also lead to an increase in cortical thickness, which leads researchers to believe that congenital amusia may be caused by the identical phenomenon in a different area of the brain.

What if I’m tone deaf?

Amusia is also similar to aphasia in that they affect similar areas of the brain near the temporal lobe. Most cases of those with amusia do not show any symptoms of aphasia. However, a number of cases have shown that those who have aphasia can exhibit symptoms of amusia, especially in acquired aphasia. The two are not mutually exclusive and having one does not imply possession of the other. As musical ability improves, so too do the higher cognitive functions which suggests that musical ability is closely related to these higher-level functions, such as memory and learning , mental flexibility, and semantic fluency.

Tone Deafness: A Broken Brain?

Amusia can also be related to aprosody , a disorder in which the sufferer's speech is affected, becoming extremely monotonous. It has been found that both amusia and aprosody can arise from seizures occurring in the non-dominant hemisphere. The diagnosis of amusia requires individuals to detect out-of-key notes in conventional but unfamiliar melodies. This musical pitch disorder represents a phenotype that serves to identify the associated neuro-genetic factors. Also, they do not show sensitivity to dissonant chords in a melodic context, which, as discussed earlier, is one of the musical predispositions exhibited by infants.

The hallmark of congenital amusia is a deficit in fine-grained pitch discrimination, and this deficit is most apparent when congenital amusics are asked to pick out a wrong note in a given melody. As a result of this defect in pitch perception, a lifelong musical impairment may emerge due to a failure to internalize musical scales. A lack of fine-grained pitch discrimination makes it extremely difficult for amusics to enjoy and appreciate music, which consists largely of small pitch changes.

Tone-deaf people seem to be disabled only when it comes to music as they can fully interpret the prosody or intonation of human speech. Tone deafness has a strong negative correlation with belonging to societies with tonal languages. A correlation between allele frequencies and linguistic typological features has been recently discovered, supporting the latter hypothesis.

Tone deafness is also associated with other musical-specific impairments such as the inability to keep time with music beat deafness , or the lack of rhythm , or the inability to remember or recognize a song. These disabilities can appear separately, but some research shows that they are more likely to appear in tone-deaf people. Mathieu , have addressed tone deafness in adults as correctable with training. Acquired amusia is a musical disability that shares the same characteristics as congenital amusia, but rather than being inherited, it is the result of brain damage.

Results showed that there was no significant difference in the distribution of left and right hemisphere lesions between amusic and non-amusic groups, but that the amusic group had a significantly higher number of lesions to the frontal lobe and auditory cortex. Neurologically intact individuals appear to be born musical. Even before they are able to talk, infants show remarkable musical abilities that are similar to those of adults in that they are sensitive to musical scales and a regular tempo.

These perceptual skills indicate that music-specific predispositions exist. Prolonged exposure to music develops and refines these skills.

How to cure tone deafness

Extensive musical training does not seem to be necessary in the processing of chords and keys. The use of scales and the organization of scale tones around a central tone called the tonic assign particular importance to notes in the scale and cause non-scale notes to sound out of place. This enables the listener to ascertain when a wrong note is played.

However, in individuals with amusia, this ability is either compromised or lost entirely. Music-specific neural networks exist in the brain for a variety of music-related tasks. It has been shown that Broca's area is involved in the processing of musical syntax. Distinct neural networks also exist for music memories, singing, and music recognition. Neural networks for music recognition are particularly intriguing. A patient can undergo brain damage that renders them unable to recognize familiar melodies that are presented without words. However, the patient maintains the ability to recognize spoken lyrics or words, familiar voices, and environmental sounds.

These situations overturn previous claims that speech recognition and music recognition share a single processing system. Many research studies of individuals with amusia show that a number of cortical regions appear to be involved in processing music. Some report that the primary auditory cortex , secondary auditory cortex, and limbic system are responsible for this faculty, while more recent studies suggest that lesions in other cortical areas, abnormalities in cortical thickness, and deficiency in neural connectivity and brain plasticity may contribute to amusia.


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While various causes of amusia exist, some general findings that provide insight to the brain mechanisms involved in music processing are discussed below. Studies suggest that the analysis of pitch is primarily controlled by the right temporal region of the brain. The right secondary auditory cortex processes pitch change and manipulation of fine tunes; specifically, this region distinguishes the multiple pitches that characterize melodic tunes as contour pitch direction and interval frequency ratio between successive notes information.

The brain analyzes the temporal rhythmic components of music in two ways: 1 it segments the ongoing sequences of music into temporal events based on duration, and 2 it groups those temporal events to understand the underlying beat to music. Studies on rhythmic discrimination reveal that the right temporal auditory cortex is responsible for temporal segmenting, and the left temporal auditory cortex is responsible for temporal grouping.

Memory is required in order to process and integrate both melodic and rhythmic aspects of music. Studies suggest that there is a rich interconnection between the right temporal gyrus and frontal cortical areas for working memory in music appreciation. Changes in the temporal areas of the amusic brain are most likely associated with deficits in pitch perception and other musical characteristics, while changes in the frontal areas are potentially related to deficits in cognitive processing aspects, such as memory, that are needed for musical discrimination tasks.

The activation of the superior temporal region and left inferior temporal and frontal areas is responsible for the recognition of familiar songs, [28] and the right auditory cortex a perceptual mechanism is involved in the internal representation of tunes. In , F. Gall mentioned a "musical organ" in a specific region of the human brain that could be spared or disrupted after a traumatic event resulting in brain damage.

Later, during the late nineteenth-century, several influential neurologists studied language in an attempt to construct a theory of cognition. While not studied as thoroughly as language, music and visual processing were also studied. In —, August Knoblauch produced a cognitive model for music processing and termed it amusia. This model for music processing was the earliest produced. While the possibility that certain individuals may be born with musical deficits is not a new notion, the first documented case of congenital amusia was published relatively recently.

MRI scans showed no abnormalities. Monica also scored above average on a standard intelligence test, and her working memory was evaluated and found to be normal.


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However, Monica suffers from a lifelong inability to recognize or perceive music, which has persisted even after involvement with music through church choir and band during her childhood and teenage years. One of the tests dealt with Monica's difficulties in discriminating pitch variations in sequential notes. In this test, a pair of melodies was played, and Monica was asked if the second melody in the pair contained a wrong note. Thus, it appears that Monica's deficit seems limited to music. This finding led to another test that was designed to assess the presence of a deficiency in pitch perception.

Monica was asked to respond "yes" if she detected a pitch change on the fourth tone or respond "no" if she could not detect a pitch change. Results show that Monica could barely detect a pitch change as large as two semitones whole tone , or half steps.