Amusia: Definition & Symptoms

Instructor: Danielle Haak

Danielle has a PhD in Natural Resource Sciences and a MSc in Biological Sciences

Read this lesson to learn about the condition known as amusia, which affects a person's musical abilities. We'll explore the definition of amusia as well as examine symptoms and diagnosis options below.

What Is Amusia?

Amusia is an intriguing word, but what does it mean? In fact, it is the inability to detect, recognize, or reproduce musical tones, and it is also referred to as tone deafness. Has anyone ever informed you that you suffer from this condition? (My first grade music teacher informed me of my musical ineptitude, so there's no judgment here!)

Amusia may be present from birth or may develop as the result of an injury. Amusia present from birth is called congenital amusia. Approximately four percent of the population is born with congenital amusia. In some cases, amusia develops after an injury to the brain, and this form is known as acquired amusia.

The region of the brain responsible for processing sounds (the auditory cortex) is highlighted in red.
auditory cortex

Amusia Research

Scientists struggle to determine what causes congenital amusia, meaning why are some people born tone deaf while others are not? Research has shown that adults with congenital amusia have severe deficiencies in mentally processing pitch variations, despite being able to process human voices, environmental sounds, and speech patterns. As a result, researchers have found that amusia is an actual learning disability that affects musical abilities in humans and is unrelated to general education or exposure to musical training early in life. This is somewhat surprising due to the similarities between language and music. (It was hypothesized that humans would have similar processing capabilities with both, but instead it was found that these are processed separately in the brain.) Additionally, language and musical capabilities are developed around the same time during childhood.

Alternatively, amusia may develop during childhood or adulthood from an injury to the part of the brain responsible for music processing (acquired amusia). People who suffer from amusia not only lack the ability to identify pitch and tone, but they also usually can't sing very well, which is to be expected.

Symptoms of Amusia

Symptoms of congenital amusia are classified into three categories: receptive, clinical, or mixed. Receptive amusia is the inability to identify familiar melodies, the inability to read music, and the inability to notice when a note is out of tune. Clinical amusia is represented by the inability to play a musical instrument, sing, or write music. A mixed amusia case a combination of the two.

Symptoms of acquired amusia are more varied and are summarized below:

  • Oral-expressive amusia: inability to sing, whistle, or hum a tune
  • Musical apraxia: inability to play a musical instrument
  • Musical agraphia: inability to write music
  • Musical alexia: inability to read music
  • Amnesic amusia: inability to recognize songs that were known prior to the injury

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