True tone deafness, or congenital amusia, is relatively rare. It’s a disorder in which people are unable to tell one note from another and it afflicts only about one in every 25 people.
So if you think you can’t sing because you’re tone deaf, Bethany Brookshire, of Science News, says… think again.
“Most of the time, no you’re not, you just can’t sing,” she said. “I’m sorry.”
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.
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.”
But all is far from lost on this research. Brookshire says this information tells scientists where they can start looking next.
“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.”
If researchers are able to locate where the brain mistakenly processes pitch in people with congenital amusia, they might be able to see if there’s a way to cure the disorder and help people experience music as others do.
“We do know it’s going to be somewhere in the brain,” said Brookshire. “The only question is where.”