Experts Look for Possible Cause of Tone Deafness

January 11, 2016

Unlocking Word Meanings

Read the following words/expressions found in today’s article. 

1. distinguish /dɪˈstɪŋ gwɪʃ/ (v.) – to notice differences of people or things
Example: She cannot distinguish the difference between the twins’ voices.

2. pitch /pɪtʃ/ (n.) – the highness or lowness of a sound
Example: One of the choir members sang on a high pitch.

3. mistaken /mɪˈsteɪ kən/ (adj.) – being wrong about something
Example: They thought the concert would be held today but they were mistaken.

4. hypothesize /haɪˈpɒθ əˌsaɪz/ (v.) – to recommend an idea or theory
Example: Experts hypothesized that the child’s difficulty in speaking was caused by his head injury.

5. take in /teɪk ɪn/ (v.) – to understand something
Example: She finds it difficult to take in information when stressed out.


Read the text below.
Incorrect brain processing explains why some people are unable to accurately distinguish musical pitches, researchers suggest.

A recent study led by Samuel Norman-Haignere of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology found that the musical disorder congenital amusia can be caused by the brain’s mistaken interpretation of pitch. Based on previous studies, this disability, also known as tone deafness, affects one in every 25 people.

Experts have long been confused as to why people with this condition can hear other sounds well but cannot identify the differences of musical pitches. With this in mind, Haignere and his colleagues hypothesized that the problem could be the outcome of how some brain structures process the sounds. The team conducted a study on 22 participants using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI). Half of the participants have congenital amusia, while the other half do not have the disorder.

Haignere’s team focused on the auditory cortex, which is the part of the brain that takes in and processes sound information. The fMRI results showed that, although it is one of the areas where sound signals are initially processed, the auditory cortex is not responsible for the incorrect interpretation of pitch.

The study’s findings revealed that there is no difference between the auditory cortex activity of tone-deaf and non-tone-deaf people. Although participants with congenital amusia seem to take in sound information well, they still could not tell one musical note apart from the other, Haignere said. Thus, further studies are needed to identify what the exact cause of tone deafness is.

Viewpoint Discussion

Enjoy a discussion with your tutor.  

Discussion A

·         What is the benefit of knowing what part of the brain causes tone deafness? Explain your answer.
·         Do you think that tone deafness is something that should be cured? Why or why not?

Discussion B

·         How important is music to you? Why?
·         What other studies about music would you like scientists to do?

January 11, 2016