Every new season of Canadian Idol and American Idol, we eagerly flip on our TVs to see who can sing the... worst! The Idol series are all about finding and showcasing the best, of course, but everyone loves the show before the show: the audition episodes. As the audition panel steamrolls across the country in search of fresh talent, TV viewers are treated to the best and worst of the bunch – and, of course, it's the latter we love to watch, the wannabes whose stunning lack of talent leaves us gaping at the TV or rolling with laughter.
Very often, these contestants are shocked and furious when the judges say they should stick to singing in the shower. Despite not hitting a single note, they honestly think they're hot stuff, and no judge is going to tell them otherwise, thank you very much. What gives?
Aside from obvious delusions of grandeur, a lot of these would-be stars may have a problem shared by 1 in 25 people: the inability to distinguish one note from another. People who have tone deafness, or amusia, may also have trouble recognizing music and grasping rhythm. (Intelligence, memory, and the ability to process language are not affected.) While this isn't a disability that interferes with daily activities, it prevents people with amusia from enjoying music the way other people can, and it can be demoralizing for people who believe their lack of musical talent is the result of not working hard enough.
Amusia has been a mystery since it was first recognized as a disorder in 1878. One theory is that a congenital anomaly (birth defect) affects neural networks in the brain dedicated to processing music. Another is that the brains of tone-deaf people react differently when they hear notes. Canadian and Finnish researchers used electroencephalography (EEG) to see which brain cells responded to musical tones of different pitches, and found that, depending on the variation in pitch, the brains of tone-deaf people either overreacted or underreacted. And, in a study published in the journal Brain, researchers in Montreal, Canada, stated that there are structural differences in the brains of tone-deaf people. They used magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) to compare the brains of people with tone deafness to others with normal musical ability, and found that the white matter concentration in the right frontal areas of the brains of tone-deaf people is lower. Amusia can also be caused by injury to the parietal lobe of the brain.
So, if the research is to be believed, a lot of lousy singers are born that way. But is everyone who sings badly or otherwise lacks musical prowess a victim of amusia? Experts say no – most people who believe they are tone-deaf aren't (these are "false amusics"). They may have trouble staying in tune or keeping time, but they're neurologically normal. That's actually good news for many hapless American Idol hopefuls, because it means they can improve with coaching and practice. The other option is to invest in software that tweaks the voice or a pitch-correcting karaoke machine. Pop stars do it, so why not?
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