Scientists tune in to tone deafness
People with amusia can find listening to music annoying and unpleasant.
LONDON, England (CNN) -- Most people know somebody who claims to be "tone deaf." Now scientists in the UK are using the Internet to conduct the largest ever investigation into the musical listening disorder.
More than 70,000 people have already taken part in the online study which aims to discover just how many people suffer from the condition, properly known as "amusia" by neurologists.
"People with amusia rarely listen to music and may find it annoying or even unpleasant," said Doctor Lauren Stewart of University College London and the University of Newcastle, one of the researchers involved in the study.
"Music which can send shivers of pleasure down the spines of many listeners will leave amusic listeners completely cold."
One amusic had described listening to a piano concerto by Rachmaninov as "banging" and "noise," Stewart said.
Amusia is characterized by an inability to recognize familiar tunes or tell two pieces of music apart. Among those suspected to have suffered from the condition are the revolutionary Che Guevara and the American president Theodore Roosevelt.
The condition is interesting for neuroscientists because it appears to be specific to music. People with amusia can recognize tonal intonations in speech, such as the increase in pitch at the end of a sentence that distinguishes a question from a statement.
The researchers hope the results may also enable them to investigate whether musical listening ability runs in families.
Despite popular misconceptions, tone deafness has nothing to do with an inability to sing, Stewart said: "Many people struggle to hit the right notes but, unlike amusics, they can hear when they are off key.
"People with amusia can't sing, but they aren't aware of this unless their friends or family have told them. The idea that you can have a good ear for music while being completely unable to sing comes as a surprise to many people."
One participant who scored full marks in the test said: "I'd always assumed that because I couldn't sing, I must be useless at music. Now I know I've got a good ear for it, I'm going to start singing lessons again -- Pop Idol watch out!"
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