What Does It Mean To Be Tone Deaf? + How It Affects Your Brain Saturday January 28 2023, 8:30 AM
Yona Marie
Singer, Songwriter, Producer.
What Does It Mean To Be Tone Deaf? + How It Affects Your Brain

What Is The Meaning Of Tone Deaf?

Being tone-deaf means exactly what it sounds like it means, and it is not a fun thing to be if you are trying to study the art of music. 

People who are tone-deaf are not able to process pitches the way that musically inclined people can. This can make it difficult to become a singer since you will have a tough go at singing the right notes in a song, and they will go sharp or flat.

The more scientific term that many people don't hear about for it is called congenital amusia, and it affects around 4% of the total population of the world. Amusia is a type of agnosia, which is the loss of ability to identify things. 

As a singer or aspiring singer, if you are tone-deaf, it’s literally like trying to swim out in the deep sea with no life jacket.

There is nothing for you to fall back on or hold on to, and you are at high risk of singing terribly. I know it sucks, but I just want to be honest here!

Now, a tone-deaf instrumentalist will still be able to see the notes that need to be hit, so they won’t be too crippled by their inability to hear the right notes, even though it will still suck and be a challenge for them.

Does Being Tone Deaf Run In The Family?

According to this study, amusia is actually genetic, which can be a scary thing to hear if you know someone close to you in your family who is tone deaf, but you are not sure about yourself.

The study goes into deep detail about how the testing subjects were specifically passing family traits down, and it was not about the musical environment that they grew up in, but it was about the musical ear that they were actually born with. 

Both nature and nurture can influence your ability to process pitches in a way that musically trained people can, but it seems that a lot of it is influenced by nature, in this case. 


What Happens In The Brains Of People With Amusia?

Scientists have studied the brains of the few people in our society who have a bit of a difference going on in their brain function. 

According to that same study referenced above, amusic people (which is a term some people use) have less white matter in their right inferior frontal cortex. They also have a thicker cortex in the same right inferior frontal area and the right auditory area.

"These anomalies, which point to abnormal connectivity, neuronal migration, or proliferation, are consistent with malformations during cortical development."

This means that there is a less strong connection between the part of their brains that processes sound and the part that is needed for higher-level thinking.

It has been shown in studies that people who are tone-deaf can also have a problem perceiving people's non-sung communication, like laughing and talking. 

This particular study shows that tone-deaf people were shown to have problems interpreting facial expressions and differentiating between a fake laugh and a real one. 

Is There A Cure For Being Tone Deaf?

If you're tone deaf, is all hope lost? There is no official cure for this, unfortunately, but in some instances, tone-deaf singers can slowly develop a good ear for pitches with the help of ear-training exercises. Consistency will be key here for success. 

My best friend, one of my favorite singers that I met in high school, was tone-deaf when we met. I can still picture that day I found out perfectly. We were all in a room, nervous about upcoming auditions for the high school chamber choir that were taking place after school.

While the regular choir was great to be in and got a lot of performance opportunities, the chamber choir was the premiere choir that got to sing all the cool, challenging music and got to be on display as the best of the best.

In order to pass the auditions for the chamber choir, you had to be really good at pitch matching and ear training.

The auditions were open for everyone to hear, and we were grouped at three singers per audition, so my tone-deaf friend Deon, my other friend from middle school who’s even better at singing than me, and I were in the spotlight, ready to pitch match.

Deon went first, and the school pianist began playing random notes for him to match. He didn’t hear any of those notes correctly at all, to our surprise. He has such a unique and beautiful voice, but he just was not able to hear that piano!

While he was embarrassed and not able to make the chamber cut that year, he buckled down and really deep-dived into getting his ear skill up.


I encouraged him, but in the back of my head, I was thinking, “It’s not possible to be tone-deaf and then just suddenly be a blessing to hear…”, but lo and behold, a couple of years later, Deon got way better at it.

It wasn’t perfect, he was still having trouble hearing, especially chords and harmonies, but the progress was obvious!

Deon got into the chamber choir three years later and went on to strengthen his ear every year since.

Now, he complains that it’s still a challenge for him to hear pitches sometimes, and he often compares his ear to mine (which isn’t fair because I was blessed with the ears of a jazz God or something), but he still is making it happen and does it well!

So with all that being said, yes, anyone can learn how to sing if they put enough hard work into the many different elements of singing, including ear training.

Are there some people whose ear is unfixable? Maybe, but there’s only one way for you to find out. Try!

Related Post: Audiation - What Is It And How Can It Change The Music World?

How To Tell If You Are Tone Deaf 

First, find a person who is definitely not tone-deaf, and who will be able to judge your tone properly.

Second, find an instrument or phone app that will play an instrument, and get your non-tone deaf friend to play a variety of pitches for you that you must immediately match.

How accurately you are able to match these random pitches will easily show your non-tone-deaf friend where you stand. 

At the same time, you can also test for something that is completely opposite of being tone deaf, which is having perfect pitch!

Perfect pitch, also known as absolute pitch, is the ability to correctly identify any music note without having an audio reference.

According to educational psychologist Jill Carden, around 4% (oddly enough) of music students are found to have absolute pitch.

When you consider those that don't study music, it is said that 1 in 10,000 people possess the skill, but that figure isn't backed by a specific study.

To see if you have perfect pitch, or if you are completely tone deaf, you need to have an instrument (digital or live) to help you reference pitches and a musically-trained person with you that can help verify your attempts. 

You will also need to be able to identify any pitch by the note names given to make the process easier.

For example, if your musically-trained assistant can play a G on the piano, but you aren't familiar with which note is called G and which is called C, you will need to learn your scales first. 

To get a feel for what your musical ear can do without referencing actual note names, you could also try to play the game of "Guess that song key".

For example, your musical (or non-musical friend) can pick a song, and you will then need to sing it in the right key before hearing the reference. 

It's probably a good idea to test at least five different pitches or songs that are unrelated, and it's an even better idea to do the test at different times to make sure you aren't just getting lucky in one moment.

There are also a few online tools that can help you find out if you are tone-deaf, including the Tone Deaf Test and The Music Lab.

Related Post: Pitch Vs. Tone - Understanding The Difference In Terms


Yona Marie

As a session singer, writer, and producer that has worked with over 300 clients to provide high-quality jingles, singles, and features, Yona spends her time creating and marketing new music and helpful resources for creators. Check out Yona’s latest releases on her Spotify, her Youtube and share if you like it!

If you are in need of singer, songwriter or song producer services, see what Yona Marie can offer you on her services page.

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