This week: Are some people born tone deaf?
THE term tone deaf usually refers to people who struggle to perceive differences in musical pitch.
‘But most people who claim to be tone deaf — if they can’t sing in tune, for example — are not,’ says Dr Chris Aldren, an ear surgeon at the Princess Margaret Hospital in Windsor.
‘They have just not had any singing training, been told early in life they can’t sing or just not made much of an effort.’
With training they can usually improve, he says. ‘However, about 4 per cent of the population has amusia — proper tone deafness — where they cannot differentiate pitch at all. If you play two different notes on a piano, they can’t tell they’re not the same.
‘A proportion of these people can’t appreciate music — it just sounds like a jumble of noise.’
It may be that they have an abnormality in the auditory cortex, one of the main areas of the brain where sounds are processed. Mr Aldren says although perfect pitch — the ability to identify a note after hearing it — is rare, many children can develop it, if trained before eight.