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Ann N Y Acad Sci. 2005 Dec;1060:255-61.

Quantifying tone deafness in the general population.

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  • 1School of Psychology, Keele University, Staffordshire, ST5 5BG, UK.


Many people reach adulthood without acquiring significant music performance skills (singing or instrumental playing). A substantial proportion of these adults consider that this has come about because they are "not musical." Some of these people may be "true" congenital amusics, characterized by specific and substantial anomalies in the processing of musical pitch and rhythm sequences, while at the same time displaying normal processing of speech and language. It is likely, however, that many adults who believe that they are unmusical are neurologically normal. We could call these adults "false" amusics. Acquisition of musical competence has multiple personal, social, and environmental precursors. Deficiencies in these areas may lead to lack of musical achievement, despite the fact that an individual possesses the necessary underlying capacities. Adults may therefore self-define as "unmusical" or "tone-deaf" for reasons unconnected to any underlying anomaly. This paper reports on two linked research studies. The first is an interview study with adults defining themselves as tone-deaf or unmusical. The interview schedule was designed to discover what criteria are being used in their self-definitions. Preliminary results suggest that performance criteria (e.g., judging oneself as unable to sing) play a major role, even for people who claim and demonstrate no perceptual deficits. The second study reports progress on the development of new subtests for a revised version of the Montreal Battery for the Evaluation of Amusia (MBEA, Peretz et al., 2003). This currently contains six tests that allow for the assessment of melodic perception: contour, intervals, scale, rhythm, meter, and recognition memory. The MBEA does not assess two capacities that are generally accepted as central to normal music cognition: harmony and emotion. The development and norming of the emotion subtest will be described. When completed, the MBEA(R) will form a robust screening device for use with the general population, whose purpose is to discriminate "true" from "false" amusics. Such discrimination is essential to achieve a better understanding of the variety of causes of low musical achievement.

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