Tone-deaf people may also have limited ability to detect emotional cues in speech, study finds

October 30, 2012, Macquarie University

A new study has revealed that those with congenital amusia (commonly refereed to as tone-deafness) have trouble decoding emotions in speech and find it hard to pick up on emotional cues in conversation.

"In all speech there is a musical quality that is created by differences in the timing, pitch and loudness of the speaker. Tone of voice can be used to differentiate a statement from a question, or a sad expression from fearful. Amusic individuals have trouble hearing these subtle differences and so often find it hard understanding the emotional tenor of a conversation," says lead researcher Dr Bill Thompson, Macquarie University.

The findings, published in the , tested how well tone-deaf people were able to detect emotions such as sadness, happiness, tenderness, irritation and fear. Compared with those who were not tone-deaf, the accuracy rate for detecting certain emotions was up to 20% lower.

The reason for this impairment is a reduced sensitivity to the subtle changes in pitch that speakers often use to convey emotion in their voices. When emotions were conveyed by other cues such as loudness or duration, the tone-deaf individuals were much better.

"Participants were most likely to confuse emotional categories that differed from each other mainly in pitch , and were similar to each other in loudness and duration. For example, tender and sad speech were often confused with each other, as was irritated and fearful speech," say Thompson.

Tone-deaf participants reported greater difficulty understanding how people felt merely by listening to them speak (for example, on the telephone), and said they relied more heavily on and when interpreting the moods and feelings of people during conversations. The group also reported fewer changes in their emotional state when listening to music and were less likely to incorporate music into their daily activities.

"That the tone-deaf participants were more likely to report difficulties interpreting subtle aspects of speech – such as sarcasm – indicates that there is definitely some self-awareness of their deficit and how it affects their social interactions," says Thompson.

Thompson and his colleagues believe many tone-deaf individuals develop strategies to compensate for their impairment and are highly attuned to other auditory and visual signals of emotion, such as the facial expressions of a speaker. "Just as a blind individual may develop extra-sensory perception of auditory signals in the environment, tone-deaf individuals may develop a heightened sensitivity to non-pitch signals of emotion, and may even give them an advantage at performing certain tasks," he says.

Though up to 17% of individuals suspect they are tone-deaf, the prevalence of true congenital amusia is estimated to be lower, and while it does not cause a major impediment the discovery that congenital amusia are not restricted to music does have wider social implication.

"This new research supports the claim that music and speech share a common acoustic code for emotional communication. It also lends support to early speculations by Charles Darwin and several contemporary theorists that emotional communication is a fundamental link between music and and reflects their common evolutionary origin," says Thompson.

Explore further: Deaf sign language users pick up faster on body language

Related Stories

Deaf sign language users pick up faster on body language

January 12, 2012
Deaf people who use sign language are quicker at recognizing and interpreting body language than hearing non-signers, according to new research from investigators at UC Davis and UC Irvine.

Recommended for you

The soothing effects of strangers

September 26, 2018
Is pain treatment more helpful if it is provided by a friend, or is the help of a stranger better? A study conducted by researchers from the Universities of Wuerzburg, Amsterdam and Zurich investigated this question and found ...

Can't keep a secret? There may be a reason for that

September 26, 2018
"Don't tell anyone" is likely a phrase you have heard before or after someone tells you a secret. But why is it so hard to not spill the beans? One Baylor College of Medicine expert explains why this is a challenge.

Researchers identify marker in brain associated with aggression in children

September 26, 2018
Imagine a situation where one child is teasing another. While the child doing the teasing means it playfully, the other child views it as hostile and responds aggressively.

Sensitive babies become altruistic toddlers

September 25, 2018
Our responsiveness to seeing others in distress accounts for variability in helping behavior from early in development, according to a study published September 25 in the open-access journal PLOS Biology by Tobias Grossmann ...

Evidence that increased BMI causes lower mental wellbeing

September 25, 2018
There is an increasing need to prevent obesity because of the consequences for mental as well as physical health, new research by academics at the University of Bristol has found.

Insomnia symptoms, overall health improve with online insomnia program

September 25, 2018
Treating insomnia with digital programs can improve insomnia symptoms, daytime functioning and overall health, a new study from the University of Oxford and Northwestern Medicine has found.

0 comments

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.