Can you be tone-deaf, but love music?

Researchers say that tone-deafness has a physiological basis: few neural connections between … uh … the frammitz and whatzitz lobes.

I think I may be tone-deaf. On the other hand, I may just have been lazy in music classes (I was lazy in all my other classes). I absolutely love music but I cannot play any musical instruments (laziness again being the likely factor). I’m pretty good at Guitar Hero, but if I anticipate the upcoming buttons I’m just as likely to guess wrong about whether a riff is high-to-low as low-to-high.

I can definitely tell “high and low,” at least with pure tones. But if you were to play a “C” and a “D” on a guitar or a piano, I could probably not say with certainty which was higher, much less say “that was a ‘C.'”I certainly cannot match up a note played on a piano and a note played on a guitar.

But again, I absolutely love music. Am I tone-deaf, or just lazy?

Update: Consensus is “tone deaf but don’t fret.” (See what I did there?)

I’m fascinated by new-found limitation! I’ve often wondered what being color blind “would be like” (I can hear Daniel Dennett say “It would be exactly like the experience of being color-blind”). But now I’m on the opposite side: here’s this sensory experience I love and I find that others have a richer (Necessarily? Well, if it’s like blue and green, yeah, that’s a big deal.) experience. How romantic! O Cruelle Neurons!

8 thoughts on “Can you be tone-deaf, but love music?

  1. The inability to say “that was a ‘C'” means that you (like most people) cannot recognize absolute pitch. The inability to say that a D is higher than a C is the lack of relative pitch. Most people have some degree of awareness of relative pitch. Most who don’t could probably learn it with practice. Whether absolute pitch can be learned is the subject of some debate, but it’s certainly not necessary to make or appreciate music.

    However, none of this in any way implies that you shouldn’t like music, because music has a hell of a lot more going on than relative pitch. There is rhythm, consonance/dissonance, setting and violating expectations, and much more. For an in-depth treatment, the book “This Is Your Brain On Music” is good.

    In other words, feel free to keep enjoying music. :)

  2. “The inability to say that a D is higher than a C is the lack of relative pitch. ”

    And that is the definition of Tone Deaf.

    In answer to the question, “Can you be tone-deaf, but love music” the obvious answer is yes – just watch the first few episodes of American Idol each season, as they are weeding out the chaff. There are countless people applying to be on that show who have absolutely no ability to sing, and when they do hear their own terrible singing back on a recording, they think they’re fine. They are tone-deaf. They can’t tell the difference between “C” and “C-Butchered”…

  3. I’m with Craig on this one. While Chris might have the definition out there, tone deaf means you can’t distinguish between the notes — the notes sound the same to you. Can you tell when a musician hits a bad note? If you hear a note in your vocal range can you hum the note? If so, you are not tone deaf.

    Perfect Pitch is hearing a C and being able to say that is a C. I play guitar (classical), and cannot do that.

  4. I’m tone deaf too. I recall trying to take some auditory response time test where you had to press up or down to indicate the tones were going up or down. The test was built to test your response time to auditory inputs. I got nearly every one of them wrong as I was just guessing since I couldn’t tell.

    You can definitely love music (I certainly do). Understanding highs/lows, etc is irrelevant to liking music.

  5. Larry,

    Oliver Sacks’ Musicophilia is a fascinating read if you’re interested in the neurological science behind music. He has some remarkable examples of people who gain a prodigious musical talent after a neurological incident, as well as those who lose their musical gift in one way or another.

    From the perspective of someone who trained from age five as a musician, the bad news is that you are tone deaf. C and a D are a tone apart. Hence, the inability to tell which one is higher is definition of the phrase ‘tone deaf’. I’d be very interested to know whether when you’re trying to sing a song you know what the next note should be. If you do then I would say that your tone deafness is only mild.

    Contra Chris Brandsma: why have definitions of things if we’re not going to use them? There’s no shame to being tone deaf – as you say, it’s a neurological thing that is no more someone’s fault than being colour blind.

    A moderately gifted musician will be able to tell you with certainty when they hear an augmented fourth, tritone or diminished seventh or any other interval. Through training of course, but it’s highly debatable whether someone who couldn’t say which was higher out of C or D could learn these intervals at all, regardless of how many hours they put in. So I don’t think it’s got anything to do with laziness.

    As to whether that impairs an enjoyment of music is a very interesting question. There are certain chords, dissonances and phrases that I find particularly emotionally affective. Whether I would have the same feelings if I were tone deaf, I don’t know. I simply can’t imagine life without the ability to distinguish intervals.

    It’d be fascinating to see some research into this.


  6. I would say that if you could not reliably say which of a ‘C’ or ‘D’ was higher, you would not be able to play any unfretted instrument such as a violin, viola, or cello. ‘C’ to ‘D’ is a whole-step. Music is routinely written using half-steps. Playing an unfretted instrument would easily require you to hear the difference in a quarter-step or smaller interval to be able to learn to play “in tune”.

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