Amusia: When Its All Just Pots and Pans

[This is part of the Music and the Brain series]

We tend to take for granted how our brain works. Particularly when it pertains to the senses. When you look at a field full of flowers, bees, and butterflies, you arent focusing on just one object (say, one bee, one flower, or one butterfly), but your brain has knit them all together into once complete scene. Similarly, when you are looking at one thing, the brain is identifying all of its parts and putting it together into a conclusive whole. Some people have defects or damage to the brain that prevents them from being able to do this. They can see something and describe it in great detail, but there brain makes no sense of it and cannot put it together into a conclusive whole. This is called Visual Agnosia. A similar condition can affect people in a musical sense. It is called Amusia.

Tone Deafness

This term is perhaps more familiar to most people. A tone-deaf person is one who does not recognize off-key singing himself or others. You no doubt have heard one. Most people who have been to a few church services have stood next to someone who cant carry a tune in a bucket. The sing way off and dont seem to care. They can even ruin the whole service for you.

Chances are that this person just cant hear themselves. Or, to put it more accurately, they can here themselves, but cant really distinguish one pitch from another, so they dont realize they arent singing what everyone else is. People like this can still enjoy music though, unlike people with Total Amusia. Oliver Sacks writes about how he once attended a chapel that employed a cantor that was incredibly tone-deaf, and would often sing a third of an octave away from where he was supposed to be singing. The cantor thought himself an excellent singer.

Rhythm Deafness

This is considerably less well-known then tone deafness. People that have this problem may have absolutely no sense of rhythm. They cant tap there foot to a song, and dancing is not exactly easy.

Che Guevara was famously rhythm deaf; he might be seen dancing a mambo, while the orchestra was playing a tango (he also had considerable tone deafness).

Oliver Sacks, Musicohilia

Total Amusia

The title of this post is slightly misleading. This is the true pots and pans. Total Amusia is easily the most debilitating of these three disorders. A person with this disorder fails to recognize notes as notes at all, and, as such, does not recognize music as music at all. It has been described by some as the sound of a screeching car. In Musicophilia, Sacks writes about a women he once met with this condition. When asked what she did hear when music was played, she would say, If you were in my kitchen and threw all the pots and pans on the floor, thats what I hear! She also said that high notes were particularly bad and an opera simply sounded like screaming.

But what causes this? How can something so basic to human culture be so radically messed with in this way? As you might expect, the answer lies in the brain. Interestingly enough, scientists have been able to link amusia to specific parts of the brain. Rhythm deafness, for example, generally occurs because of damage to the left hemisphere of the brain (the part of the brain that generally is considered the orderly mathematical one). Tone deafness on the other hand tends to arise from damages to the right hemisphere of the brain (the part that is considered more creative). Of course, not all people with amusia have brain damge, but a large percentage of them do.

Sacks also writes about a patient he once met who was very musical. She had perfect pitch, and was a gifted performer and composer. She, it could be said, had it all musically.

One day she was in a bad car accident, she was in a coma for several days, and in a state of being only half awake for several weeks after that. When she finally came to, she noticed that her perfect pitch was gone. The first song she listened to was a Beethoven string quartet. Something incredible had happened. Although the notes sounded like notes, and she could tell when they went up or down, they did not blend together. Each instrument part sounded like its own individual laser of sound. She was suffering from the musical form of Visual Agnosia.

Why things like this happen we unfortunately dont really know. It shows us how little we understand our brain, and how music interacts with it. However it is quite fascinating, and I am very thankful that I am not stuck with one of these issues.

Do you suffer from amusia? Know someone who does? I would love to hear about it! Leave me a comment below!

[This is part of the Music and the Brain series]