Don’t Blame the Vocal Cords: Tone Deafness and Singing

February 20th, 2017

Screen Shot 2017-02-20 at 6.25.57 PMAs anyone who’s watched an episode of American Idol knows, not everyone can sing. Some of us can carry a tune, and others … well … we’d better keep our day jobs. Tone deafness is the inability to hear and reproduce relative pitch — to pick up a sound with your ear, process it in your brain, and then create it with your vocal cords. Why does bad singing happen?  The breakdown could occur anywhere along that process … in the ear, the brain, or the throat.

Nearly all of us are equipped with the biological hardware to produce a wide range of notes, according to Sean Hutchins, a neuroscientist who studies music. But singing is a complex expression.  “The majority of people, around 60 percent, have a difficult time” with it, he said.

The majority of bad singers don’t have bad vocal cords — their throat muscles work just fine. So, do bad singers hear notes incorrectly to begin with? To find out Hutchins asked volunteers to reproduce synthesized vocal tones that he made with a computer. First, they matched the note with a computer note. Almost everyone was able to make the match, suggesting that for most people hearing was not the problem. But when people were asked to use their own voices to match the note, most of them … especially non-musicians … had a harder time.

Even when he played the same note more than 20 times, those who got it wrong the first time could not reproduce the pitch. They sang the same erroneous note over and over, as if they were locked in. When they were shown a screen that depicted the pitch of their voice compared to the actual note, they still couldn’t get it right.

The fact that some people can’t find a note even with help, and even after many tries, suggests that the brain is dialed in to the error, even when the ear knows better. Bad singers know they’re off-key, but they can’t find the right note. The term for this error is imitative deficit. The brains of bad singers associate a note we hear with the wrong muscle movement in the voice. The wires are crossed.

Their is hope for the screechers though. Researchers studying brain trauma have found that remapping the brain is possible, but it can be a laborious task, requiring practice every day for years. Hard work: the answer nobody likes to hear.

Are you tone deaf? Test your ear!