Hearing management

Updated 20 September 2016

Idols: Are some people really tone-deaf?

Whenever it's Idols season the question comes up: can't the Wooden Mike contenders hear how terrible they sound? No, they can't, says a hearing expert.


Are some people really tone-deaf? asks a reader in the Hearing Management forum. Here's what the Widex Expert has to say:

This is a question that comes up whenever the Idols auditions roll around again. In the olden days, they used to say such a person has "a tin ear".

At a simple level, some people would call them "tone deaf", but it's actually more complex - some people cannot hear and distinguish different musical tones and notes, so their tuneless singing which sounds odd to us, sounds just as good to them as any singer's performance.

This is presumably why some of the very worst and most excruciatingly awful performers in the Idols auditions are most furious when the judges reject them. Either what they hear when they sing sounds better than what you hear, or it sounds just the same as what they hear when someone else sings the song properly.

But they may have the rhythm of the song correct, even though you might not notice that. Others cannot pick up the rhythm of a song to save their lives, even if they get the notes right.

Some don't get music at all, and could have congenital "Amusia" which is not at all funny, despite how it sounds.
Whether it can be helped is debatable. Some experts claim they can indeed remedy this with intensive training, but I find their claims unconvincing. It could be like trying to train a severely colour-blind person (who might see the world monochrome) to recognise colours. They might at best recognise different shades of grey in what they see, but would still have no idea of the colours you see.

The ones that could be helped would be those on the edges of the major disabilities --- some, I suspect, have never really learned how to listen to music, to recognise that there are different notes, rhythms, and so on, and they could probably learn to perform much better than they otherwise do.

(The Widex Hearing Expert Forum)

More: Visit the Hearing Management Centre

More on tone-deafness and the brain

Here is an extract from a Sapa story from 2009, in which an expert describes a study on tone-deafness and brain function:

People who are tone-deaf can't detect differences in musical pitch but usually have normal hearing and speech. Tone-deafness runs in families, and estimates of how many people have the problem range from 4% to 17%.

In the small study done in Boston, brain scans showed there was a difference in a particular brain circuit between those who were tone-deaf and those who weren't.

Among the tone-deaf, researchers discovered there were fewer connections between two areas of the brain that perceive and produce sounds.

The study's lead author, Psyche Loui, likened the connection to a highway between two islands in the brain.

In tone-deaf people, "there's less traffic on the highway," said Loui, who studies music and the brain at Harvard Medical School and is also a musician.



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Hearing Expert

Francis Slabber is a Speech & Language Therapist and Audiologist who has owned and run The Hearing Clinic in Wynberg, Cape Town for the last 17 years. Francis and her team have extensive experience in fitting and supplying hearing aids as well as assistive living devices. Francis has served as the Western Cape Chairperson for the South African Association of Audiologists for three years and has given many talks on the topic of hearing loss and amplification. The Hearing Clinic has a special interest in adult and geriatric hearing impairment, hearing aid fittings and hearing rehabilitation.

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