Are we hardwired to be tone deaf?

Illustration by Tray Butler

I’m always drawn to the early episodes in a season of “American Idol.” They’re entertaining, as guilty pleasures tend to be, but also intriguing in a way that speaks to my scientific curiosity. I’m referring to the multitude of contestants that perform, umm…shall we say, dissonantly—meaning they are seriously out of tune, even awful.

What’s especially interesting is that often these same contestants are completely ignorant of this fact, sometimes defiantly so. As a scientist, I feel compelled to seek an explanation somewhere in the scientific literature.

Fortunately, music is something that’s ubiquitous in all human cultures, geographically and historically. Consequently, there is a lot of research out there—although regrettably, a lot of it tends to use an upsetting amount of science jargon. We should be grateful that album liner notes do not contain sentences like: Thanks go to the “physiological studies in monkeys [that] suggest that roughness may be represented in the primary auditory cortex by oscillatory neuronal ensemble responses phase-locked to the amplitude-modulated temporal envelope of complex sounds.”

A significant chunk of this literature focuses on the concept of pitch, a subjective quality, depending entirely on the listener’s perception of a musical note. Likewise, this inherently also involves the notion of frequency, the cold empirical measure equating a note to the number of vibrations per second it produces. Pitch differs from frequency in the same way the statement, “That’s a nice sounding A” differs from the statement, “It’s emitting at 440 Hz.” 

That distinction, by the way, is something that Paula Abdul is still wrestling with.

Really, the two are intertwined. One is humanistic in nature, and the other is very much a technical quantifier—hence the presence of both of them in music research literature. This jargon’s important because it turns out that holding a tune is all about a person’s comfort with pitch.

In particular, an ability to discriminate the different pitches within a melody is key. This ability is known as relative pitch, and on the scale of musical prowess it’s perhaps one notch below the phenomenon of absolute or perfect pitch, which is when an individual can sense the specific frequency of a note independent of any other input.

Of course, you still need to have the pipes to hit all these notes: The complex organic machinery wedged from the lungs to the throat needs to be in good working order. It’s apparent that those defiant contestants are so obstinate because they’re unable to discriminate pitch as well as overcome their anatomical limitations. This combination results in their “singing inaccurately,” a term which is actual scientific lingo.

Of late, more and more research is moving toward providing a physiological basis for pitch perception. For instance, there is expressive amusia—an inborn or brain lesion-induced inability to recognize or reproduce musical notes. There have been comparisons of blind and non-blind musicians where marked differences existed in the development of the planum temporale region within the brain and determined whether they were capable of absolute pitch or not. There are even studies that attempt to localize the compartments of the mind deemed responsible for assigning emotion to music (the amygdala, in case you were wondering).

Clearly, anatomy plays a role, and with the added realization that pitch perception may have a genetic influence, perhaps the physical underpinnings of singing inaccurately may one day be elucidated. At the very least, it suggests that humans may be biologically hardwired in this regard—that being tone or pitch deaf is, at least on some level, built in.

That fact leads to an intriguing notion that deserves further study. If we are to assume that the judges and, more importantly, the millions of voters across the US are similarly governed by the same anatomical and genetic pressures, then what exactly is being heard when the contestants perform?  If nothing else, this type of conjecture is why you should hope that the eventual “American Idol” winner is objectively, you know, “good.”

Otherwise, that would suggest the general population is out of tune. Which is a scary thought really—or at least, as scary as Ryan Seacrest.

Originally published May 23, 2006


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