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Can anyone learn to sing? Bad Singer delves into the science behind how the brain processes music

Tim Falconer

Neil Wadhwa

The name William Hung may ring a dissonant bell to those who watched the reality competition American Idol.

Hung sprang to fame in 2004, becoming one of pop culture's most notoriously bad singers when he delivered a staggeringly awkward and ear-shattering rendition of Ricky Martin's She Bangs in an audition for the television show.

His off-tempo hip wiggles, accompanied by jerky arm movements, and tinny voice prompted the show's famously surly judge Simon Cowell to cut him short.

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"You can't sing. You can't dance. So what do you want me to say?" Cowell said.

It turns out Hung could sing in key. He just sounded terrible.

As Toronto journalist Tim Falconer explains in his new book, Bad Singer: The Surprising Science of Tone Deafness and How We Hear Music, there's much more to how the brain processes music than simply registering the pitch. A number of other factors, including rhythm, volume, lyrics and timbre, an intangible quality which involves the tone colour and texture of a sound, also play a significant role in how we experience and enjoy music.

Falconer suggests one of Hung's big mistakes was in his choice of song. The Ricky Martin number was a bad match for his thin voice and a capella performance. His lack of timing and accent did him no favours either. But incredibly, Hung's pitch almost perfectly matched the pop star's. As Falconer points out, he was hitting all the right notes.

Not that Falconer could actually tell. Falconer is among an estimated 2.5 to 4 per cent of the population who has congenital amusia, or tone deafness, a neurological impairment that affects one's ability to perceive small differences in pitches. It also makes him a self-described and scientifically validated poor singer. Yet strangely, his disorder doesn't hamper his enjoyment of music. In spite of it, Falconer is an avid music lover who fantasizes about being the lead singer of a band.

In his book, Falconer documents his quest to learn about his rare and fascinating condition, interviewing professional musicians, psychologists, neuroscientists and ethnomusicologists to figure out how his brain processes music differently from others. Along the way, he maintains an ambitious mission to improve his singing so that he may perform in front of a gathering of friends.

Falconer firmly declined to sing for The Globe, but happily answered our questions about what he discovered about the perception and production of music.

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For you, what is it like to be amusic?

My ability to hear pitches is not good, but my production of pitches is even worse. At the International Laboratory for Brain, Music and Sound Research (BRAMS) at the University of Montreal, they tested me and said, "Yep, you're a classic amusic."

So my first question to explore was: What's going wrong in my brain? And that's an important thing; it's not in the ear, it's in the brain.

When I worked really hard with my singing coach, both in sessions with him and practising in between sessions, I got to the point where I could sing badly in front of people. But having not had a lesson for a year, I would be really terrible.

How does this deficit affect your life?

I guess if I didn't like music or was indifferent to it, I wouldn't know what I was missing. But I see my friends getting together and making music together, even if it's just playing guitars around a campfire or something. That's something I can't do.

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All the research I did suggests there's a connection that gets created when people make music together, and I'm missing out on that. The analogy I like to use is hockey. I love watching hockey and reading about hockey and talking about hockey and arguing about hockey. But nothing beats playing it.

You talked to a lot of researchers who were eager to study you. What were they hoping to learn?

Music cognition is pretty recent stuff, and they're still trying to figure it out. Really, they're trying to understand music and understand how we react to it, what's going on in the brain. One study that my family members and I all took part in is a study in BRAMS that looks at the genetics of amusia. If they can really find the gene, maybe it gets back to the roots of music in humans. But it's hard stuff to really understand because people are still trying to figure out what is it that we respond to in music.

You mention they have something at Ryerson University called the Emoti-Chair, which allows deaf people to feel music. Tell me about the Emoti-Chair.

I tested it out. It's really cool. It's basically what they called voice coils, which are actually nothing to do with voice. They're a component in your stereo speakers. They're tuned to different frequencies in this chair and music plays through them.

I sat in the chair when they played white noise, and it was just sort of like a gentle massage. And then they played a song. It turned out to be Hey Jude by The Beatles, and I couldn't identify it, but I could tell there was a musical structure to it. Apparently deaf people will get in there and will immediately start moving their hands and those who use it a lot can identify genres and stuff like that and really become attuned to the music playing through the Emoti-Chair.

It's another example of how we don't only hear music, we feel music. And psychology professor Frank Russo, director of Ryerson's Science of Music, Auditory Research and Technology Lab, always talks about seeing music, that we see the rhythm. When we see a band playing, the obvious thing is to see the drummer, but we also see the guitarist tapping his or her foot, we see the emotion in the singer's face. The way we perceive music is a lot more complicated than most people think. It's not just about what you're hearing, there's a lot of other senses going into it as well.

With training, you mention your singing improved.

Well, it improved marginally. It's still really bad.

Because I don't hear pitch very well, I kind of had to learn the contour of a song and then get some sort of muscle memory to get me close to the right notes. So I wasn't learning to sing in the way most people would, where they'd, you know, learn the notes and sing them.

Happy Birthday is a horrible song but all the labs like you to sing it just because it's a song everybody knows. I worked with my singing coach and I did get a little bit better at singing it.

But when I was played two tones and asked to sing them back, I was sometimes able to sing them back in the right order, but wouldn't always correctly tell which was higher or lower.

One of the theories is some amusics may be hearing the stuff unconsciously but not have access to it. And apparently, some amusics have learned to sing. They're just not aware that they sing in key.

What was the most difficult part of this whole process?

Dealing with the frustration. I kept thinking that it would be like learning some really hard level of math, level triple integration or something like that, where you'd go, "I don't get it, I don't get it." And then all of a sudden, you go, "Yes! Now I get it!"

And that never happened because there's a pathway in my brain that is underdeveloped. It would take a lot more work than I've put into it or would really have time to put into it to improve that neural pathway.

How did all the testing and training affect your enjoyment of music?

I think I have a deeper understanding of music. It's always been a basic gut reaction, like "I like that" or "I don't like that." Now I have a more nuanced understanding of music and how we perceive it. I still really love music, but I'm also much more aware that I can't do what I want to do, which is to make music.

The researchers say I'd have a much easier time learning an instrument, but my favourite instrument is the human voice, so I wanted to master, well, maybe not master, but play that instrument.

Do you still sing when you're on your own?

Yeah. But I'm much more self-conscious doing it in front of other people now because now I know how bad I am.

You were asking me about having me sing. What I say is I have a disorder in my brain that's like dyslexia. And no one would say, "You wrote a book about dyslexia, now could you get up on a stage and read?" But you write a book about being a bad singer, and people say, "Can you sing for us?" And it's like, well, no. For some people, it's an innocent enough request. For other people, they think it will be funny.

The thing about music is there's this whole debate about whether it's evolutionary or not. But it's so important in our lives, in our society, that it doesn't really matter if it's evolutionary or not.

This interview has been condensed and edited.

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About the Author

Wency Leung is a general assignment reporter for the Life section. Before joining The Globe in early 2010, she has worked as a reporter in Vancouver, Prague, and Phnom Penh. More

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