Tag Archives: Amusia

Some links to old stuff about amusia, a disorder of the perception of music

Amusia. Frontiers. BBC Radio 4. December 13th 2006 http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p00j4814 I couldn’t get this to play, but you might have more luck.

McBurney, Gerard The sounds of music. New Statesman. October 25th 2007. http://www.newstatesman.com/books/2007/10/oliver-sacks-brain-music-tales

Amusia or tone-deafness can be tested for and diagnosed in childhood

Amusia can be diagnosed using a battery of tests, the Montreal Battery for the Evaluation of Amusia (MBEA; Peretz, 2003). The first documented case of congenital amusia in childhood is described in the paper listed below. Amusia is one of a number of disorders of perception that I have written about in this blog, including prosopagnosia and agnosia for scenes, that have been theorized as being caused by a lack of connections in the brain, which could be seen as the opposite of synaesthesia. I guess that amusia, a difficulty in perceiving music, could be seen as the opposite of perfect pitch, which is an ability that appears to be associated with synaesthesia and autism.


Marie-Andrée Lebrun, Patricia Moreau, Andréane McNally-Gagnon, Geneviève Mignault Goulet & Isabelle Peretz Congenital amusia in childhood: A case study. Cortex. (article in press) doi:10.1016/j.cortex.2011.02.018   http://www.sciencedirect.com/science?_ob=ArticleURL&_udi=B8JH1-529MVTS-1&_user=10&_coverDate=03/04/2011&_rdoc=1&_fmt=high&_orig=gateway&_origin=gateway&_sort=d&_docanchor=&view=c&_searchStrId=1726989201&_rerunOrigin=scholar.google&_acct=C000050221&_version=1&_urlVersion=0&_userid=10&md5=43fef257d6f2b1bfce00e36d3badb560&searchtype=a

Lauren Stewart Congenital amusia (quick guide) Current Biology. Volume 16 Issue 21 7 November 2006. Pages R904-R906.    doi:10.1016/j.cub.2006.09.054  http://www.sciencedirect.com/science?_ob=ArticleURL&_udi=B6VRT-4M8WTCF-7&_user=10&_coverDate=11%2F07%2F2006&_rdoc=20&_fmt=high&_orig=browse&_origin=browse&_zone=rslt_list_item&_srch=doc-info(%23toc%236243%232006%23999839978%23636547%23FLA%23display%23Volume)&_cdi=6243&_sort=d&_docanchor=&view=c&_ct=32&_acct=C000050221&_version=1&_urlVersion=0&_userid=10&md5=7d8218bc925dd41d5cb5c44a89ac76b4&searchtype=a

Delosis Research Technology Musical Listening Test http://www.delosis.com/listening/home.html

Prevalence rates of some interesting neurological conditions and disorders

Number form synaesthesia   ~12% (Ward, Sagiv & Butterworth 2009)

Dyslexia   5-10% English-speakers (Mitchell Feb 2011)

Dyscalculia   5-6% (Mitchell Feb 2011)

Congenital amusia (tone deafness)   4% (Mitchell Jan 2011) (Mitchell Feb 2011)

Day of the week -> colour synaesthesia   2.8% (Banissy et al 2009)

Prosopagnosia   1-2% (Mitchell Feb 2011)

Congenital prosopagnosia 2.5% (Mitchell Jan 2100) (This figure is inconsistent with the above figure as people with congenital prosopagnosia should be a sub-set of all people who have prosopagnosia)

Mirror-touch synaesthesia   1.6% (Banissy et al 2009)

Grapheme -> colour synaesthesia   1.4% (Banissy et al 2009)

ASD including autism   ~0.6% (Wikipedia)

So this means that, if the disorders besides autism listed above do not overlap in the people they affect, possibly almost a quarter of the population either can’t read, can’t do maths, can’t comprehend music normally, or can’t recognize faces adequately, while diagnosable autism is thought to only be found in less than a percent of people. So why so much hysteria and research funding about autism and so little funding for research into all the other issues?

The total number of synaesthetes in the population cannot be calculated by simply adding up the different types of synaesthesia listed above, because we know that individual synaesthetes often have a number of different types. Regardless, it is clear that synaesthetes make up a sizeable proportion of the population, and synaesthesia isn’t rare at all. So why is it that most teachers that I have spoken to have never heard of synaesthesia, a neurological condition (not disorder) that can directly affect learning (positively and on occassion negatively) and can affect the student’s sensory experience in the classroom?


Banissy, Michael J, Kadosh, Roi Cohen, Maus, Gerrit W, Walsh, Vincent, Ward, Jamie Prevalence, characteristics and a neurocognitive model of mirror-touch synaesthesia. Experimental Brain Research. (2009) 198:261–272. Published online: 3 May 2009. DOI 10.1007/s00221-009-1810-9 http://www.springerlink.com/content/26mh37152110617x/fulltext.pdf

Mitchell, Kevin The Neuroscience of Tone Deafness: The strange connection between people who can’t sing a tune and people who are “face blind”. Scientific American. January 18th 2011. http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=the-neuroscience-of-tone

Mitchell, K. J. Curiouser and curiouser: genetic disorders of cortical specialization.Current Opinion in Genetics & Development. 2011 Feb 4. [Epub ahead of print] http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21296568

Ward, Jamie, Sagiv, Noam and Butterworth, Brian The impact of visuo-spatial number forms on simple arithmetic. Cortex. Volume 45 Issue 10 Pages 1261-1265 (November 2009). http://www.cortexjournal.net/article/S0010-9452(09)00213-5/abstract

New journal paper appears to contrast prosopagnosia with synaesthesia

I’d love to read this new journal paper. It is by the same author from an Irish university who wrote a recent article in Scientific American magazine that I recently mentioned in this blog. Synesthesia (a familial developmental neurological condition) is contrasted with familial developmental disorders such as dyslexia, dyscalculia, prosopagnosia, color agnosia and amusia.

Curiouser and curiouser: genetic disorders of cortical specialization.

Mitchell KJ.

Current Opinion in Genetics and Development. 2011 Feb 4. [Epub ahead of print]


Link between face recognition and synaesthesia becoming obvious – interesting new article about tone-deafness and prosopagnosia in Scientific American magazine

This interesting recent article explains the many similarities between tone-deafness and face-blindness, and how both conditions can be caused by “structural disconnection” rather than damage to the specific parts of the brain that “do” face recognition or musical perception. The distinction between the developmental and congenital forms of these conditions are explained.

You don’t need to be a genius to see that the “structural disconnection” discussed in this article could be seen as the opposite of synaesthesia, but just in case that isn’t completely obvious, synaesthesia is mentioned at the very end of the article, in the notes about the author of this article, who is a scientist at Trinity College in Ireland who studies “the genes involved in wiring the brain and their possible involvement in psychiatric disorders and perceptual conditions, including synaesthesia.” Indeed!

A word of caution – I don’t think there is anything in this article that says that prosopagnosics are more likely to be tone-deaf, or vice versa. Although it would seem a sensible assumption that a group of traits should be found together: good face recognition should be found with intact or great or maybe even excellent ability to consciously comprehend musical notes (perfect pitch or absolute pitch), should be found with synaesthesia, but this is not always the case. Apparently there are synaesthetes who are also very poor at face recognition, and the synaesthete author Vladimir Nabokov has been reported by Oliver Sacks to have possibly had “a profound amusia” (Sacks 2007, 2008 p. 109-110), based on a passage that Nabokov wrote in his memoir Speak, Memory. I think amusia is a fancy word for tone-deafness. In the book Musicophilia Oliver Sacks describes a number of different types of amusia, and interestingly, this prosopangnosic author also describes in his book some episodes of  amusia that he experienced which were a part of the aura of his  migraine headaches. There are so many connections here that it’s almost like looking at a plate of spaghetti!

Are people who have perfect pitch better than average at face recognition? Are super-recognizers synaesthetes? Is perfect pitch unusually common in synaesthetes? Are the opposite deficits associated with each other? Get to work, researchers!

Mitchell, Kevin The Neuroscience of Tone Deafness: The strange connection between people who can’t sing a tune and people who are “face blind”. Scientific American. January 18th 2011. http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=the-neuroscience-of-tone

Mitchell, K. J. Curiouser and curiouser: genetic disorders of cortical specialization.Current Opinion in Genetics & Development. 2011 Feb 4. [Epub ahead of print] http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21296568

Sacks, Oliver Musicophilia: tales of music and the brain. Revised and expanded edition. Picador, 2007, 2008.

Tranel, D. Damasio, A. R. Knowledge without awareness: an autonomic index of facial recognition by prosopagnosics. Science. 1985 Jun 21;228(4706):1453-4. http://www.sciencemag.org/content/228/4706/1453.abstract  http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/4012303


Postscript 2013 – I’ve had comments from at least one person who is apparently a definite and high-profile super-recognizer to the effect that she is not a synaesthete, so that’s a strike against the idea that supers are synaesthetes. Regardless, I reserve the right to point out that some researchers have found that some study subjects who claim to not have synaesthesia have returned test results that suggest that they are, so it appears to be possible to be a synaesthete and not know it.