How Tim Falconer Fought Tone Deafness and Neurology One Butchered Song at a Time

If your karaoke buddies won't be honest with you, an fMRI will.

Lost in Translation

Tim Falconer knows he can’t sing. The karaoke-averse Canadian journalist cops to his “tone deafness,” but says his bad ear has done nothing to diminish his love for music. It is, as he writes in Bad Singer: The Surprising Science of Tone Deafness and How We Hear Music, a neurological handicap he’s spent much of his life trying to work around. It is incurable, but the horrific-sounding symptoms can be treated; everyone can sing.

Dreams of fronting a band propelled Falconer toward a confrontation with the musical fate decreed by his brain’s circuitry. Falconer spends his book documenting what happened next, which was, well, embarrassing, but also fascinating from a cultural and scientific perspective. Falconer talked to Inverse about the architecture of the tone-deaf brain, the cruciality of timbre, and why Bob Dylan truly is a bad singer.

What does it mean to be tone deaf, scientifically speaking?

Most people use the word “tone deaf” to mean “bad singer.” A lot of people think, “I’m tone deaf because I’m a bad singer.” And, of course, the problem is not in the ear, even though we use the term ‘tone deaf’ or ‘tin ear.’ The problem is in the brain. There’s a neural pathway that, in my brain, is not as developed, and the information doesn’t travel as efficiently.

The analogy I use is roads: If you’re musical, you probably have an interstate going between your temporal lobe and your frontal lobe — the part of the brain that perceives sound and the part of the brain that produces sound. You probably have an interstate, and I’ve got a little blue highway.

So you thought you could take this little blue highway and pave it over into something resembling an interstate?

It’s a similar disorder to dyslexia. If you get kids young enough, and you give them special training, they can overcome their dyslexia. It’s probably the same with congenital amusia. I, unfortunately, am well past the stage of my life where I can benefit from that. Now, Psyche Loui, who was at Harvard and has since opened her own lab at Wesleyan, was the first one to give me an fMRI. She said, if you work really hard, you can improve this. Then she started talking about stroke patients spending five hours a day training. I can’t spend five hours a day. I got up to half an hour to an hour a day of practicing, and my singing did improve marginally, but it’s still bad.

Had you ever considered your tone deafness to be an actual disability?

Yes, my whole family thought we were tone deaf. But we thought that meant we were just bad singers. We didn’t really know what that meant. The big revelation for me was that I was using this very common, casual definition, and it was much more complex but also much more interesting than that. There are other reasons why people are bad singers. So, no, I did not think of it as a disability.

But I was bummed, because I wanted to make music. All my life I’d wanted to be able to sing but knew that I shouldn’t do it in public. In the book I play up the fact that I felt like a subhuman freak, and to be honest, once I got the diagnosis, it did make me feel weirder. There was something really wrong with my brain. Instead being one of many people who considers themselves tone deaf, I was part of this very small group whose brain wasn’t right. And the architecture of my brain means I can’t do something I would truly love to do.

How has being a-musical shaped your musical tastes?

The hard part is that I don’t know what you hear when you listen to music, so it’s hard to talk about what I hear. If you’re colorblind, I don’t know what you’re seeing, but you don’t know what I’m seeing. Isabelle Peretz’s surprise at my love of music made me think: What am I hearing and is what I’m hearing that different from what everybody else is hearing? There’s a lot more going on in music.

If you’re not hearing pitch, what factors make music sound good to you?

The main thing for me is timbre. When people first started talking about timbre, I only had the vaguest sense of what that was. The researchers don’t really spend too much time worrying about it. In textbooks it’s described as “the tone color of an instrument,” which is not a very helpful definition. It’s a hard thing to define and so far has been impossible to measure.

Has your emphasis on timbre over, say, pitch and rhythm, skewed your musical tastes?

The music I like is not that different — it’s not like I’m into really obscure music that nobody else likes. So I don’t think I’m hearing things that differently. I admit, I might be missing some of the pitch nuances in songs, but maybe I have a stronger sensitivity to timbre. Besides, Gillian Turnbull, the ethnomusicologist thinks — and she said, “You may not want to hear this” — that a lot of singers you like are considered bad singers. Bob Dylan, Patti Smith, Neil Young, Lou Reed.

How has this experience changed the way you appreciate or judge music? Are you listening for different things?

I’m not listening for different things, but I think about it differently. I’ll think I really like a song, then I’ll ask, how would I describe the timbre there? One of my favorite albums of this year is the new Tindersticks, and I think the timbre of that is something I really like. Or a singer-songwriter named Laura Gibson. But then I like something like Thao and the Get Down Stay Down, which has a little more jagged and angular a sound. It’s not quite as smooth. So, I think about it a bit more, but not so much that it ruins the music for me.

Has writing this book changed your relationship to music?

I know more about it now. I don’t love it any less, that’s for sure. I’ll ponder things like the timbre, but I won’t obsess about it. Just enjoy the music. To a certain extent, I feel like because I’ve written a whole book about it, I’m overthinking it. If you like that song, great, dance to it or sing along to it or cry to it.

This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.

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