Harvard Health Letter

Music to their ears it is not

Tone deafness may be caused by differences in connections between parts of the brain.

Many of us can't sing very well, and we don't need Simon Cowell to tell us. We mouthed our way through school chorus and the singing parts of religious services. Even now, we belt it out only in the shower or in the car — alone, with the windows closed. We consider ourselves tone deaf, and we have plenty of company: About one in seven people count themselves among the tone deaf.

But are we? Being tone deaf tends to be equated with an inability to sing, yet there are plenty of terrible singers who hear music just fine and enjoy listening to it. If the term is used in a stricter — and more literal — sense to mean people who can't perceive music, the numbers get smaller. Using music listening tests, researchers have found that only one in 20 people is truly tone deaf. The main deficit for such people is an inability to hear differences in pitch — how high or low notes are — so following even the simplest melody is hard work, if not impossible.

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