It can really be that bad

[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 aren’t 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 it’s 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 can’t carry a tune in a bucket. The sing way off and don’t seem to care. They can even ruin the whole service for you.

Chances are that this person just can’t hear themselves. Or, to put it more accurately, they can here themselves, but can’t really distinguish one pitch from another, so they don’t realize they aren’t 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 can’t 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, that’s 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 it’s own individual laser of sound. She was suffering from the musical form of Visual Agnosia.

Why things like this happen we unfortunately don’t 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]

Categories: Music and the Brain
  • Martin

    As someone with amusia, I am not sure about your description
    of it.  I am also not that impressed by Oliver Sacks’s rather superficial
    view. (I have read his chapter on amusia)

    To me the key is not about recognition of notes or rhythms, it is about one’s
    reaction to  music.  There are two sorts of music in my experience –
    innocuous which can be ignored or blanked out and offensive music which cannot

    According to the researchers at  Goldsmiths College, I have nothing wrong with
    my hearing of notes etc.  I just do not see the point of music.  Sings with recognisable words in a language I
    understand may be ok, but I am listening to them as poetry or verse  rather than music.

    You could try  listening
    to this BBC Radio 4 programme broadcast a couple of years ago.   Mine is the first voice you hear after the community


    Martin Price



    • Patrick Wells

      Apparently I could have done a better job of getting my point across. I do understand that amusia such as yours has a complete neurological basis. However, the idea of “pots and pans” as was mentioned by a patient in Sack’s book, seems to indicate to me that she did not, in fact, hear music the same way someone else did.

      Obviously people such as yourself who do not “get the point” of music have something different “going on upstairs” then the rest of us. I don’t mean to offend, that’s just the way it is. In the end, that was the point I was trying to get across.

      • Martin

        The researchers at Goldsmiths Areworking on the theory that my problem relates to lower quantity of white matter in different parts of the brain.  This is hereditary – my mother and her father were affected  similarly.

        What I find interesting is the idea that 4% of the population is affected.  There are an awful lot of people out there faking an interest in music because it is socially isolating in modern culture.  “Everybody” has to have a favourite album or song.  They have to have an iPod.  (I have one full of BBC Radio 4 speech podcasts)

        This faking of musical interest must have a psychological effect. 

        I also find it fascinating collecting famous amusics – Vladimir Nabokov, Margaret Drabble, Ulysses S Grant, Che Guevara – to name a few.

        • Patrick Wells

          Ulysses Grant huh? Never heard about that, quite fascinating stuff.
          Don’t forget that not all people with amusia have it in the way you do. Many people enjoy  music, but just are incapable of making many of the distinctions that others can.

          • Martin

            It is well-documented that Sigmund Freud and Vladimir Nabokov were actively antagonistic to music in any form.  

            PL Travers who wrote Mary Poppinsis the only person to have no music when she appeared on Desert Island Discs.  Incidentally, for rights reasons, the podcast of Desert Island Discks has next to no music – bonus!

            Not many people actually admit to disliking music and people tend not to  believe such a condition exists when you tell them. 

            The amusics I have met just go with the flow until it becomes unbearable.

        • Shawneedt12

          I gave up trying to care about music, I mean my amusia is bad but I can still enjoy a select number of very specific pieces that don’t give me headaches.

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  • Shawneedt12

    I have a less severe form its sort of like a between of amusia and total amusia. Some sounds are almost painful exactly like that pot and pan thing you said while some things just seem to i don’t know LACK. I have trouble telling the difference between people voices but I can here some tones on the extreme ends of the spectrum.

  • PawsiiAJ

    Anyways, I’ve been looking for an article on this for a while! Thanks so much for making this, because I remembered what it was, but I forgot the name. I wanted to find something like this so I could remember the name of the symptom.

    • PawsiiAJ

      I have to highlight a comment in order to read it…