Tone deafness and bad singing may not go hand in hand

Over at Sciam's Mind Matters blog, Greta and I have written a guest post about tone deafness and bad singing:

Although there have been many studies of perceptual tone deafness, or amusia, few have compared people's ability to hear differences between musical notes with their ability to produce good music. This fact is what makes the recent study by Pfordresher and Brown so interesting. They tested 79 college students on both their ability to discriminate between musical notes and their ability to sing accurately.

... and here's what they found:

The bad singers were significantly worse than the good singers, and dramatically so. No matter the circumstance, they were off by more than two semitones, as far apart as any consecutive notes on the scale, even when repeating just a single note.

Yet bad singers were just as good as good singers in identifying differences in note pitch. In other words, bad singers aren't tone-deaf, they just can't sing. Visit the site to get the researchers' explanation why.


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This makes perfect sense to me. I'm very musical and clasically trained for years. My best friend growing up was a terrible singer but could recognize notes just fine. In fact, she played the piano quite well. But I finally noticed in college that although she was always off pitch with her singing, she sang songs *exactly* the same way every time. She'd always hit the same wrong notes at the same parts of the song no matter how many times she repeated it. It was fascinating to me. It was like she could hear it but had no vocal the Serius Cybernetics robot choir singing everything in a perfect flattened fifth. Share and Enjoy!

I'm not sure what makes this such a revelation. There are a ton of trained and skilled musicians that can't sing on pitch. Just because you can hear and recognize tonality doesn't mean you can carry a tune. I guess now there's the science to back what seemed pretty obvious to begin with.

People seem to regard singing as something easy and natural - its really not. It's actually quite hard, and takes a lot of practice to do well (for most people). It's really no different to learning to play a musical instrument that lacks fixed notes, like the violin.

I'm not at all convinced that vocal range is a good measure of motor control though ("Finally, poor motor control doesn't explain the difference either: bad singers have a similar vocal range as good singers"). In fact, I'm not convinced that it's a measure of motor control at all. There's a big difference between being able to hit the top and bottom notes, and being able to accurately hit (and hold) a note somewhere in between.

I sort of agree with J-Rod. Just because I can see slight differences in shades of a color doesn't mean I can mix them with paints. And just because my musculoskeletal system can reach the positions formed through a baseball swing doesn't mean I can hit a ball off a tee, much less a pitch. It just takes practice.

The only truly curious result this type of experiment could find is that some people may be able to sing even if they can't distinguish between heard tones. Still, a more useful question to ask is whether the bad singers can tell they're bad and if not, why?

Understanding a foreign language versus being able to pronounce it properly... it is quite a similar example, isnt it?

This study distinguishes bad music perception from bad music production, but it still conflates failure of pitch discrimination with failure of music perception, as shown by the phrase "perceptual tone deafness, or amusia".

There are software applications which "perceive" pitch, but there aren't any which "perceive" music in the sense of agreeing consistently with human listeners (either individually or collectively) about what is or isn't music.

Which proves, if it wasn't already obvious, that pitch discrimination is not the same as music perception, any more than ownership of legs constitutes an ability to walk.

I've written more on this subject at We Have Not Yet Discovered "True" Congenital Amusia.

Thanks for sharing this, it makes sense and clears up, at least for me, the fact that many that can play/produce good music cannot sing good music. I personally can "hear" the difference in good and bad, but for the life of me cannot reproduce it in singing. Go figure!