Blog Post Series 2

Tone deaf, really?

Most people define tone deafness as perceived poor singing ability. This is actually not the case. Tone deafness doesn’t just stop at not being able to sing properly, it roots back to musical perception, cognition, memory, production, and performance.

There have been studies done to know the differences between perceived tone deafness and actual tone deafness. Since it was found that 17% of American adults claim that they are tone deaf, research has been done how and why they perceive their tone deafness and how true this actually is. Some adults claim it because they are “not musical” – like they can’t sing or can’t play a musical instrument. Though this may be true, they don’t have any evidence if they have any physiological anomalies in sound processing.

In a study done in 2005, these people were tested and the test was divided in two parts. First, they completed the Montreal Battery of Evaluation of Amusia (MBEA). And then, they answered a questionnaire about their “musical experiences, abilities, training, and interests.” In these tests, they found that self-reports focused on vocal production, musical instruction, listening attitudes, and childhood memories of musical environment. These results are contrasted with the MBEA results and found that these people who consider themselves tone deaf may, in fact, be not tone deaf.

Another study that was done in 2008 compared self-reporting tone deaf and not tone deaf individuals. The participants’ musical perception, cognition, memory, production, and performance were assessed. It was found that the tone deaf individuals performed significantly less than the not tone deaf individuals. However, they did not exhibit characteristics that are the same as those that have congenital amusia.

All these studies suggest that people who claim to be tone deaf may not actually be.


Cuddy, L. L., Balkwill, L., Peretz, I., & Holden, R. R. (2005). Musical Difficulties Are Rare. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences,1060(1), 311-324. doi:10.1196/annals.1360.026

Sloboda, J. A., Wise, K. J., & Peretz, I. (2005). Quantifying Tone Deafness in the General Population. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences,1060(1), 255-261. doi:10.1196/annals.1360.018

Wise, K. J., & Sloboda, J. A. (2008). Establishing an empirical profile of self-defined “tone deafness”: Perception, singing performance and self-assessment. Musicae Scientiae,12(1), 3-26. doi:10.1177/102986490801200102


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