I’m not tone deaf

Marshall Chasin
February 17, 2015

It was 1961 and I, like many of my second grade friends (we call it grade 2 in Canada), were asked to try out for the school choir.  I presume that they needed as many high-pitched voices to balance the macho adult sixth-grade kids in the choir.  Awaiting my turn, I glanced out the window during the recess break (which I had voluntarily given up) and watched the other kids enjoying themselves play stickball, or kick the can in the school yard.

It was now my turn and after a couple of bars of happy birthday to you, I was told to go outside and enjoy myself for the minutes remaining in recess.

Later in life, I was told that just mouthing the words was not sufficient to be in a choir.

I am not tone deaf, but could never really carry a tune.  I am not too bad if I am accompanied by a guitar (and actually played guitar and sang a little bit in a local park during grad school to make my rent), but singing has never been easy for me.  Unlike those who are truly tone deaf, I always knew when I was off key, but just couldn’t figure out how to get back to the right note.

Tone deafness is really not something that we see in everyday life.  Personally, and clinically, I have never run across anyone who is truly tone deaf.  Perhaps if I worked in a post-stroke or TBI rehabilitation facility I would have encountered some such person.

If someone was literally tone deaf, the person would be unable to understand any speech at all.  Vowels would sound like nasals, and nasals would sound like sibilants and speech would be completely unintelligible.  Yet, the phrase “tone deaf” seems to be misused to refer to people like me who have difficulty matching the pitch of a sound when heard, even though I may know that it’s wrong.  I guess that is why I only play musical instruments with frets or definite notes such as a clarinet, or a fretted guitar.  My son calls me a “music-technician” because I can play the notes but am limited if the music is taken away from me.  I suspect that I would be a miserable musical misfit if I took up the violin or fretless bass.

Now, some research, recently published in Music Perception, by Steven Demorest, a professor of music education at Northwestern’s Bienen School of Music in Chicago, may cast some light on my musical incompetence.  Demorest and his colleagues found that music perception may not be an innate talent, but something that can be learned and, if not practiced, unlearned. In other words, a use it or lose it phenomenon.

The researchers asked children in kindergarten, grade 6, and young adults in university to sing a sequence of pitches back to the experimenter, as well as to sing in intervals (such as a third, a fifth, and octaves). They found that children in grade 6 did better overall than kindergartners (a practice issue?) but that the university subjects did more poorly than the grade 6 students and actually performed similarly to the kindergarten kids.

The researchers noted that music education, which was provided up to at least the sixth grade, was an issue in the better performance of these pre-teens. After this point, music education was more sporadic to the point that some 18-year-olds had forgotten how to sing (or at least to sing in tune).

The researchers did acknowledge that some people innately have better pitch perception than others, but that practice and continued music education is another factor.

My saving grace is that I am an audiologist and, as such, am allowed to talk about sounds in terms of 250 Hz or 440 Hz. I can “see” these sounds on a meter or with spectral analysis. In fact, I can use any number of techniques to see these notes, and the more techniques I use, the more I am lauded.  There is nothing like becoming the hit of the party by saying, “I performed a spectral analysis using an FFT (with a Hanning window), a LPC, and also a bank of digital filters.” But, I can’t generate a A or C# unless I am very lucky.

I guess that I’d better start listening to more music (including my own) and stop trying to analyze it.  Perhaps it’s not too late for me to learn to sing after all.

birdsong hearing benefits
  1. Dr. Chasin,
    I assume you have a piano in your office–talk about a “fret”-ready keyboard to match tones with! Do you sing solfege (do-re-mi…)? It prepared me to enter music school: the classic sing-able interval exercises by Danzinger.
    NOTE: This week’s must-read article in New Yorker magazine (2/2/15 & 3/2/15 combined, p. 180) by Alex Ross, the excellent music critic/author: “Wizards of Sound.” About the Constellation system–“acoustical paradise…” in restaurants and concert halls… and (construction of) the Grateful Dead’s celebrated Wall of Sound.” “The (John) Meyer Sound depends on a combination of digital legerdemain and old-fashioned craftsmanship.” Audio engineers should know of it. My non-musician HoH and CI friends who “can’t hear music” deserve this chance.
    Esther Sokol

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