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Born to Be Tone Deaf?
Searching for the Cause of Musical Dysfunction

listen Listen to Joe Palca's report.

Jan. 16, 2002 -- Monica is a perfectly healthy middle-aged woman. She's normal in every way -- except that she's tone deaf. And as NPR's Joe Palca reports for All Things Considered, she's helping Canadian researchers discover why it is that some people can't carry a tune to save their life. They say genes might be the answer.

Testing for Tone Deafness

One of Monica's problems with music is her inability to hear differences in pitch. Monica listened to a series of sequences made up of five tones. In each sequence, the fourth tone changed pitch. If the pitch was significantly higher, Monica could detect the change 60 percent of the time. If the pitch was lower than the others, Monica was unable to hear a difference.

listen Normal Pitch Detection
Most people can detect the subtle pitch change in this sequence. Monica couldn't.

listen Falling Pitch
Monica couldn't hear the falling pitch in this sequence.

listen Rising Pitch
Sixty percent of the time, Monica could detect the higher pitch in this sequence.

Psychologist Isabelle Peretz studies people with amusia -- the technical name for people who can't recognize or tell the difference between melodies. Usually, amusia is the result of some form of physical damage, like a brain injury or a problem with the ear.

But Peretz decided to study people who were perfectly healthy, and still have no ear for music. She advertised in a newspaper in Quebec, Canada, asking for volunteers who had clear musical disabilities. That's how Peretz found Monica. In tomorrow's issue of the journal Neuron, Peretz describes her work with Monica, a woman in her early 40s with a remarkable case of amusia.

"She knew all along of course that she was not really good at music or participating in musical kinds of activities because she tried," says Peretz. "In Quebec, it's rather common to be enrolled in church choirs, so she did participate in those choirs, and she was told of course not to sing."

Cover of the Jenkins LP, released after her death, "The Glory (????) of the Human Voice"

Tone-Deaf Diva?
Opera singer Florence Foster Jenkins made a legend out of her alleged pitch deficiency. The early 20th-century singer belted out Mozart, Vivaldi, Bach and Brahms with great style and rhythm, but stunningly out of tune.

Still, peforming recitals before elite East Coast audiences and with a career climax at Carnegie Hall, she didn't let a little detail like pitch get in her way: "Some may say that I couldn't sing," she said toward the end of her life, "but no one can say that I didn't sing."

listen Listen to recordings of Jenkins.

Just open your mouth, the choir directors said, and let the others carry the tune. Monica's attempts to play in a band were similarly disastrous. After that, Monica steered clear of music whenever she could. Just listening to music gave her a headache.

At Peretz's lab in the University of Montreal, testing showed that Monica was off the bottom of the scale in her ability to recognize melodies. Peretz then tested Monica's ability to hear changes in pitch. She played her several sequences of five tones, with the fourth tone in each either rising or falling in pitch. In one of the sequences Monica listened to, most people -- even babies -- could detect the change, says Peretz. Monica couldn't.

Monica could detect some dramatic shifts, but sometimes even those weren't enough. And for some reason, she couldn't identify tone differences that were lower than the surrounding tones. Peretz's team isn't able yet to make a definitive conclusion about the source of Monica's amusia -- only that her musical deficits aren't related to physical defect or damage. Monica may be, therefore, the first documented case of congenital amusia. And that puts researchers on the trail of genes as the cause.

Many researchers are looking for genes that are associated with musical ability. The difficult part is finding ways to tell who really is tone deaf. Peretz's work should help pin that down, says Dennis Drayna, a geneticist at the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders.

"We now have a much better idea of the sorts of things we should be testing if we want to study these kinds of people."

In Depth

pollution related stories Browse through NPR's archives for stories about perfect pitch and hearing problems.

Other Resources

• Read more about hearing problems at the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders Web site.

• Read more about the University of Montreal's research into the musical brain.

• Read about how the brain processes sound at BrainConnection.com.

• Perfect pitch or tonally challenged? Try this pitch test by British amateur pitch researcher Phillip Griffiths.

• Read "How Your Brain Listens to Music," published by the Harvard University Gazette newsletter.

• Learn more about the brain's relationship to music at the University of Washington's Web site.

• Read more about sound and hearing research at the Acoustical Society of America Web site.

• Visit the journal Neuron on the Web.