Music to their ears it is not
Tone deafness may be caused by differences in connections between parts of the brain
Harvard Health Letter
For Dr. Lee Bartel – Music and the Brain 2122H
A Summary, Review and Response
There are many people who cannot sing well, however, most people that cannot sing still enjoy listening to music. Tone deafness in the true description of the term means that a person cannot perceive music. Only about 1 in 20 people are truly tone deaf, meaning that they have an inability to hear differences in pitch, in even the simplest of melodies.
Serious tone deafness is referred to as amusia. Some people are born with it and it is called congenital amusia. With newer brain imaging tests, researchers are able to compare the brains of amusics against people with normal musical abilities.
Some of the typical problems with tone deafness are pitch problems. People with amusia tend to need a larger distance between notes before they can truly hear a difference. They may not be able to hear the semi-tones in between notes as most people can. People with amusia also do not hear pitch direction or contour, meaning that they cannot hear whether the note is moving up or moving down. Rhythm also seems to be a problem for amusics unless the music being played is monotone. Researchers believe that when a normal piece of music is played the pitch changes throw them off and therefore they have trouble with music’s rhythm as well.
Music processing by the brain is handled by the right side. People who are tone deaf do not have any major anatomical differences from those of normal people. Researches have used a technique called “voxel-based morphometry” to calculate the density of brain tissue. They found that people with amusia tend to have thinner white matter in their brains, suggesting a weaker connection between the frontal lobe and right temporal lobes.
This finding indicates that there may be a “pitch center” in the temporal lobe where simple pitch is recognized and processed. When other parts of music become involved more brain power is required and therefore the frontal lobes become involved. Researchers also found that the cerebellum also becomes activated by rhythm. In other parts of the study the researchers played music that produced “chills” and found that more blood flow went to “reward-seeking areas of the brain.” These areas also become activated in response to food, sex and recreational drugs.
There is much debate over whether musical perception and language processing occur in the same area of the brain. Some people have no trouble with words, but when it comes to music are at a loss. Tests have been done of people with amusia to find the difference between sentences that varied in intonation and they did just as well as normal subjects.
This article also included a small section on musical hallucinations. Musical hallucinations have been known to occur with other types of psychoses; however people with no mental illness or brain injury have also suffered from them. The cause is often hearing loss and there has been a similar occurrence with sight loss called Charles Bonnet syndrome. People experienced detailed “pictures” of familiar places and people even though they are unable to see. A theory about musical hallucinations is that the brain has a memory for sensory input. When people can no longer hear or see the memory of the sensory is experienced as a hallucination.
As a music teacher, I try to tell myself (and my students!) that everyone has the ability to make music and that tone deafness is just “all in our minds.” This article has made me realize that it may indeed by all in our minds; however, it may actually be a part of the way our brains are wired and more than just a little bit of mind-over-matter.
I have only come across one student in my classroom that truly could not sing a pitch given to him. He was a bass clarinet player and we were playing a song that required the band to sing for a few measures. I noticed that when we were working on the singing part that he was mis-pitching quite a bit. I decided that I should work one-on-one to help him hear the pitch more accurately. I worked with him for 30 minutes and no matter what, he simply could not sing the pitch. I had the entire class sing with him, and even with reinforcement, he was unable to get the correct note. He could; however play the bass clarinet, usually quite well. I did notice that he would often forget the key signature and would play through the entire piece, wrong notes and all, and would then be quite surprised when he lost marks for so many wrong notes. He really couldn’t hear that the notes he was playing did not fit in with the melody. Perhaps he was simply tone deaf, or maybe he even had a case of amusia. He seemed to enjoy listening to music and could understand the elements of music quite well so I do not believe that he was suffering from true amusia. He did, however, have some hearing issues in one ear that could be contributing to his inability to pitch accurately.
I found this article interesting because it provides clear research and evidence of true tone deafness. As a music teacher it has me a little worried because what can you do with a student who suffers from true amusia? If music sounds like a cacophony of noise and you want a particular student to either sing or play their instrument within this cacophony it is a very difficult and I would imagine annoying task for the student to complete. Young students especially would not be able to articulate the fact that they cannot perceive or make sense of the sounds they are hearing. I imagine it would be a very scary and isolating situation to be in. The student may feel like there is something wrong with them and remain silent on the matter so as not to be ostracized.
It is great to see facts on paper about tone deafness and amusia, however, where do we go from here? Is there any sort of cure for the problem? Is the brain capable of building more “white matter” in order to overcome and possibly cure amusia? What do I do with a child that is tone deaf in my classroom? Are there any sound therapies for tone deafness? Are some cases worse than others? Obviously, all of these questions cannot be answered easily and some questions may never be answered.