In the last post we examined the odd phenomenon of musicians thinking they are tone deaf. We discussed the difference between the clinical brain disorder amusia which includes tone deafness, and the more loose cultural definition which means having poor pitch sensitivity and difficulty singing in tune. If you were still left wondering if you might be tone deaf, there are some tests you can take online to find out for sure.
Often, simply clarifying what “tone deaf” actually means helps people see that they are not, in fact tone deaf. Myth busted! If you enjoy music and can recognise tunes you know, or tell if a sequence of notes is going upwards or downwards in pitch, it’s extremely unlikely that you actually suffer from tone deafness. It’s much more likely that you have weak pitch sensitivity (which pitch ear training can cure) and perhaps also lack vocal pitch control i.e. you have trouble reliably singing the notes you intend to.
However, you might have doubts beyond that and it’s useful to be able to take a scientific evaluation of your pitch sensitivity to confirm whether you are truly tone deaf or not. If you search for tone deaf test online you’ll find several interactive tests. Here’s a look at a few tests and our recommendations of the most useful.
Jake Mandell Tone Deaf Test
One of the top-ranking tone deafness tests which comes up in search results is this one, designed by Jake Mandell, a hospital radiographer.
I was actually quite shocked to find my own score on this test was high, as the music clips used are very odd and the questions very challenging. The test is based on asking whether a pair of melodies are the same or different, but the melodies are quite strange-sounding and the differences can be quite subtle. It was easy to see that even capable musicians might “fail” this test! In fact, the creator says as much in the test’s description:
The test is purposefully made very hard, so excellent musicians rarely score above 80% correct.
This test may serve to screen neuroimaging patients well in the hospital, but it seems odd to design a tone deafness test where even excellent musicians get less than 80% correct!
Perhaps tone deaf individuals do score particularly low on this test (e.g. < 20%) but I'm not convinced that the remaining score range (e.g. 20% - 80%) actually tells you anything about a person's musical ability, since the melodies are long and atonal. If you’re a musician looking for a challenge, give it a try. If you’re worried about being tone deaf, steer clear!
The Musicianbrain.com Pitch Discrimination Test
This is another slightly odd test. In the vein of Dango Brothers or the InTune app, the Pitch Discrimination Test from Musicbrain.com tests your fine-grained pitch discrimination abilities, by asking you whether two electronic tones are the same or different.
However, like the test above, it seems to be set at a far more challenging level than simply testing whether you are tone deaf or not. The questions quickly become very subtle indeed. So again, even excellent musicians might struggle with some of the subtler pitch differences.
The description warns:
If you feel that you’re guessing, it’s normal! Keep going!
That may seem bizarre, but I know from my background in conducting critical listening tests for audio codecs and audio effects that it is possible to subconsciously hear differences you aren’t quite aware of, and very reliably distinguish cases even if it feels like you are guessing.
The musicianbrain.com pitch discrimination test seems like a good test to measure pitch sensitivity, but is perhaps more useful for grading capable musicians than answering the simple question of “are you tone deaf?”
Tone Deaf Test Videos
Here’s an interesting video from Phil Moufarrege of Grow-The-Voice.com, which combines:
- Explanation of tone deafness
- Simple test of pitch sensitivity
- Singing exercises to learn to match the pitch you hear
It’s a short video, and perhaps an overly simplistic view of pitch sensitivity, and it does somewhat confuse the hearing and the singing sides of the matter, but it’s a useful demo and might help you start exploring you non-tone-deafness.
Here’s another video, from Justin Stoney of New York Vocal Coaching, covering the question: “I’d love to sing, but I’ve always been told I’m tone deaf. Is there any hope for me?”
Again, this is from the perspective of singing, but covers the core concepts around tone deafness and provides some simple exercises to test yourself with and practice matching pitch with your voice.
NIH Distorted Tunes Test
Want to test your own sense of pitch? We’ve developed an online version of the Distorted Tunes Test, a standardized survey in use for over 50 years. In it, you’ll listen to a series of snippets from well-known tunes—some of which have been distorted by changing various notes’ pitch. Your task is to pick out the incorrectly played tunes.
This test plays you 26 melodies and asks whether they were played correctly or not. They are generally well-known tunes such as national anthems and Christmas carols. However, the “incorrect” changes introduce atonal notes, and so even if you don’t know the melody you should be able to spot something’s not right.
This is a simple and effective test. Recommended!
The Montreal Battery for the Evaluation of Amusia
The Montreal Battery for the Evaluation of Amusia is a scientific test for diagnosing clinical amusia. It’s important to note that this is a broader condition than what most people mean by “tone deafness”. The test therefore includes not only pitch tests, but also evaluation of rhythmic sensitivity.
The test was developed by scientists at the University of Montreal in Canada and continues to be used by leading amusia researcher Isabelle Peretz and her team in that department. Based on a model of how the human brain processes music in both melodic and temporal terms, the battery tests 6 areas of musical sense: contour, interval, scale, rhythm, meter and memory.
You can take a simplified form of the Montreal Battery amusia tests online to evaluate your own abilities.
The tests you find online for tone deafness vary considerably and some may be quite misleading. If you have concerns that you might be tone deaf we recommend the NIH Distorted Tunes and Montreal Battery tests.
Don’t go through life thinking you are tone deaf. Try one of these online tone deaf tests and find out for sure. Then, once you’re reassured that your ears are perfectly fine, try our Ear Training Crash Course to begin exploring your musicianship!
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