Back during elementary school assemblies for the morning rendition of O Canada, I somehow always ended up near a kid who couldn’t sing.
The sounds that emerged from him were dissonant and irritating, resembling the moos of a cow crossed with a sheep caught in a bear trap. He was sometimes singled out by a stern teacher during music class for his inability to do anything but drone and squeak. After a while, she just gave up, giving him a passing grade only because of his undiminished enthusiasm for making this noise. He really thought he was singing.
Years later when I was giving drum lessons, I had a mom in her 40s who decided that she was finally going to learn how to play. But no matter how much we worked on things, the poor woman couldn’t keep a beat; in fact, she couldn’t even count to four without losing her place and flying off in all directions at once.
Eventually, we mutually agreed that perhaps being a drummer wasn’t for her. I was reminded of her by the Seinfeld episode Little Kicks where Elaine embarrasses herself by trying to dance at the office party.
Back then, we just wrote off such things as personal idiosyncrasies. Today, the inability to cleanly sing a note or keep a simple beat is recognized as a specific sort of neurological condition involving the body and brain’s complex relationship with music.
Over the last 300,000 or so years, our brains have evolved to be hardwired for music. We’re not sure why, but neurologists do know that there are parts of that three-pound lump between our ears that seem to do nothing other than store and process music. There are areas reserved just for musical memories while others produce specific physiological responses when we hear a song. But sometimes, the wiring isn’t quite right.
Let’s start with my tone-deaf schoolmate. He may have suffered from amusia, classic clinical tone-deafness, a disorder in which the brain can’t process pitch and the differences between certain frequencies. This makes it difficult or impossible for the person to recognize melodies, impairing both their ability to sing and play a musical instrument.
At the same time, though, amusic people often maintain the ability to be emotionally affected by music. He could also dance and move in time with any piece of music.
What causes this? It’s unclear, but it may have something to do with not being exposed to music and rhythm at a young age, leading to an underdeveloped Broca’s area, a thumb-sized part of the deep in the (usually) left frontal lobe that’s linked to music processing. About four per cent of the population have congenital amusia. It’s also possible to become amusic through brain trauma from illness or an accident.
Some amusic individuals also have musical anhedonia, an even more puzzling neurological condition first recognized in 1993. It prevents someone from deriving any kind of pleasure from the sound of any kind of music. To them, music is grating noise and they avoid it as much as they can. Like amusia, musical anhedonia may arise from traumatic brain damage or it may be a congenital thing in up to five per cent of the population.
In both cases, there seems to be less neurological activity between the auditory cortex (a small chunk of brain just behind the years) and the brain’s mesolimbic pathways, which lead to the parts of the brain that secrete dopamine, the body’s feel-good hormone. If audio signals fail to make it to the nucleus accumbens and the amygdala, then the person isn’t going to feel any emotional and physical award from music.
Not only can this create some socially awkward and isolating situations, but it’s a very big problem for those who live in parts of the world where tonal languages like Chinese and Thai are spoken. For them, even listening to the sound of another person’s voice can be incredibly annoying.
What about my rhythm-challenged drum student? She may have suffered from a degree of beat deafness, a neurological condition that wasn’t described in medical literature until 2011. It was identified during a study that involved a Canadian graduate student known only as “Mathieu.”
He was part of a group of people with no musical training who was exposed to different types of music with different rhythms. All the participants were asked to move to the music. Mathieu could not. He couldn’t even bounce up and down in time with the tunes. Even more interesting was when the group was shown a video of someone alternately standing still and dancing. He couldn’t tell which was which.
A closer look at Mathieu’s brain didn’t indicate any injury, illness, or issues with his hearing or the parts of the nervous system dealing with motor control and movement. In fact, everything else about his brain was completely normal. It appeared that in Mathieu’s case, his left auditory cortex, which is responsible for processing beat, rhythm, and timing, wasn’t working. Why and how? No clue. Research into beat deafness is a brand new field and more investigation is needed.
The summary of all this is that if you encounter someone who can’t sing or can’t dance, it isn’t because they’re merely untalented, uncoordinated, or just not trying hard enough. It could be a mysterious wiring problem that scientists are still struggling to figure out.
Alan Cross is a broadcaster with Q107 and 102.1 the Edge and a commentator for Global News.