bad singer

What does it really mean to be tone deaf?

In the fascinating new Bad Singer, Tim Falconer explores amusia — the neurological inability to perceive pitch.

- May 17, 2016

For a small percentage of the population, tone deafness is an inescapable reality. More than just “bad at singing,” it's a label that's used to describe thoughtlessness or inconsideration — and no wonder the frustration goes more than notes deep. Though many people might self-identify as “tone deaf” when it comes to lack of singing ability, only 2.5% of people are actually clinically amusic, meaning they have difficulty or neural inability to perceive pitch.

As a journalist and journalism instructor at Toronto's Ryerson University, Tim Falconer chooses his words carefully, describing himself as amusic before joking that he had to work really hard to become a just bad singer. Falconer was diagnosed with amusia while writing his new book, Bad Singer: The Surprising Science of Tone Deafness and How We Hear Music. While trying to figure out why he wasn’t able to sing along to some of his favourite tunes, he was given a life changing diagnosis by one of the leading researchers in the field.

Bad Singer follows Falconer as he grapples with the diagnosis, while also exploring what it means for his musical tastes. It also questions whether it's even possible for him to become a better singer, as he works towards the goal of singing at a house-concert with vocal coach Micah Barnes. It’s a fascinating read that combines personal narrative with scientific and cultural research.

We spoke with Falconer about living with amusia, whether he still takes singing lessons, and the ineffable qualities of timbre.

Chart Attack: There are a number of songs you sing throughout your book. “Amazing Grace.” “A Good Year For The Roses.” “Silver and Gold.” “Blackbird.” I have to know — what are you singing on the cover?

Tim Falconer: That was a series of photos taken for the Maisonneuve article I wrote. The photographer really liked Pink Floyd, so those photos are of me singing along to “Time.”

Pink Floyd - Time (2011 Remastered)

Do you still take singing lessons?

I had to work really hard to just get to the level of being a bad singer, not a completely horrible singer.

Tim Falconer
No. Once I did the house concert, I felt like, “okay, I did it.” Yes I improved slightly, but not enough that I could ever use this skill. So what would be the point? The lessons are expensive. I could probably take lessons from someone other than Micah Barnes, but not someone who’d be as encouraging and into the process.

It’s an interesting question because, I said to my publicist back in the fall, "I’ll go anywhere, I’ll do anything, but I won’t sing." We’ll probably lose some broadcast interviews for that.

Wait, they wanted you to sing?

They would love to have me come on and sing. As a journalism instructor, I found this fascinating. Print publications are so desperate for multimedia for their websites, even if it's crap. So, Maclean's had a review, and I gave them a whole clip of my house concert, and they put the whole thing up online. The Star wanted to tape Micah Barnes and me working together. Just… No. They wanted a sense of how I worked with him, and so I gave them a recording of one of our sessions that they can put on their website.

But for me to sing at that house concert, in public, I had to work really, really hard, and I haven’t had a lesson now in a year. So I don’t want to spend the time or money to get to the point where I’m not completely horrified to sing in public. There’s this sense, that “oh it’ll be entertaining to hear you sing badly,” but to me, I have this neurological disorder that’s similar to dyslexia. If I had dyslexia, no one would ask me to come on their radio show or TV show and ask me to read. They would never think of that.

That seems exploitative.

Yeah, you get it. [laughs]

Did you feel more comfortable as a singer once you got to the point when you performed? You focus a lot on what the audience said afterward about your performance, but I’m curious to know what you thought.

To a certain extent I don’t know how well I did. I listen to it now and think it’s terrible. But because I don’t hear properly… When I was singing it I knew I did a bad job of “Blackbird” just because it didn’t feel right. That was the kinesthetic muscle memory of it. My editor kept saying “stop being such a journalist in this last part. Tell us how you really feel.” Here I am, telling you how I feel. I’m glad I didn’t have to do it in a room of people I didn’t know. That would’ve been terrifying. Doing it in front of people I knew, I guess it became like a bad party trick.

The reality was, I needed an ending for the book. Sure, I could’ve gone to a bar and done karaoke badly and no one would’ve even noticed. But that seemed like a cop out to me. There’s something completely vulnerable about singing. You don’t even have the guitar in front of you. It’s just you there, and it’s frightening. I had to work really hard to just get to the level of being a bad singer, not a completely horrible singer.

The Beatles - "Blackbird"

It seems like as much as the book is about you working to find the root of why you’re a bad singer, it’s also an argument for better, more compassionate music education.

There’s a connection that I will never have, because I can’t sing with other people.

Tim Falconer
Even for people who are amusic, and that’s only 2.5% of the population, there’s a huge swath of people who are bad singers who’ve been told in one way or another to just mouth the words, who give up on singing because of that, instead of being encouraged to sing and get better. The vast majority of bad singers can get better with help, and even as an amusic I got a little bit better. One of the things that Isabelle Peretz [at University of Montreal] said, was that we know what the cure is, and that’s to get amusic people when they’re really young and get them to develop that part of their brain that’s deficient, and improve it that way.

I guess my book is about: there’s this thing that I really want to do, but my brain won’t let me do it. And that’s a bummer. There’s a connection that I will never have, because I can’t sing with other people.

There’s this great tension in the book between what a lot of the researchers on amusia are focusing on, which is the data that’s easily quantifiable, like pitch perception, and the more ineffable qualities of something like timbre. But I also like the way you centre yourself in the narrative, because I don’t think there’s any other way you could describe how frustrating it must be to be in those sessions with Barnes, with him trying to get you to find the pitch and you just not getting it.

When Peretz diagnosed me, she said “well I’m really surprised that you like music that much, or at all.” And it made me question “what am I really hearing? And is what I’m hearing really all that different than anyone else?” Generally speaking, I like a lot of the same stuff that a lot of other people do. It’s not that I like these really obscure bands where everyone thinks it’s terrible and I just think it’s the best thing I’ve ever heard. I must be hearing something the way other people are hearing it. Most of my friends would say I have good taste and turn them on to good stuff. Not the music critics and whatnot who always want to have the most obscure finds.

One of the songs you were encouraged to sing for your recital was “Blackbird.” You said one of the difficulties for you with singing that song was not having any emotional connection to the song prior to you singing it. How did that change after you performed it? When you listen to that song does it remind you of standing in front of your friends and singing?

PTSD [laughs].

People said to me, “oh that’s a really hard song, why did your singing coach make you sing that?” I don’t know. I want to ask him that. I’m sure his idea was that if I was going to be doing this, that I shouldn’t be wimping out with a set of easy songs, so I should do a hard one. I know that song means a lot to him, and maybe he was hoping I would be able to develop that connection to it, but that’s the whole thing: you can’t force a connection on someone. It’s like, if there’s music that you and your wife were listening to when you first got together, that’s a connection that cannot be manufactured.

In the book I talk about “Monkey Man” when I was in University. That was — I hate this word —  but that connection was organic. That’s a really important part about music that I don’t think we fully understand. We understand the idea of having an emotional connection, but that emotional connection also changes the way we hear the song. A lot of the book is about how we really don’t understand a lot about how we hear music.

The Rolling Stones Monkey Man

We don’t know a lot, but I like how you acknowledge a lot of the work that came before you, building on what Daniel Levitin says in This Is Your Brain On Music and what David Byrne says in How Music Works.

Well obviously they’re people coming at it from different places. Byrne is a musician, so he’s coming at it as an insider, and Levitin is a researcher and musician and engineer, so they both come at it from expertise. I come at it without any expertise. [laughs]

Well it’s a specific kind of expertise, right? You said 2.5% of the population is amusic.

It's a very small segment of the population. I hear it all the time though: “oh, I’m tone deaf.” There’s an online test you can do, and I gave it to so many people. Only one person admitted to me that she failed it. Most of these people who are saying they’re tone deaf are just bad singers. They don’t really understand what amusia means. They should be fortunate that they don’t have it.

Is there an amusia community?

That's a really interesting question. I don’t know. I think one of the problems might be that most people who have amusia either really don’t like music —  they find it difficult to listen to — or they’re indifferent. It’s like listening to a speech in a foreign language. So there’s only a small portion of the population that are amusic and interested in music. So it might be a very small listserve. The interesting thing is that out of all the amusic people Peretz has studied, there’s only one other person who likes music. That’ll be an interesting thing to see as time goes on.

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