Steve Martin once said, "talking about music is like dancing about architecture." It is true that for most people, music is a subjective experience that defies description. However, some researchers are trying to do just that: quantify the musical experience in order to explain the rare disorder of amusia, a condition that is characterized by the inability to recognize music in the frequency and/or temporal dimension.
Amusia can be congenital or acquired through trauma to the brain. Until recently, amusia was not recognized as a disorder and warranted little research (Ayotte, Peretz, and Hyde, 2002). If a child was labeled as "tone-deaf" by a music teacher, the parents would probably just shrug it off and sign them up for T-ball instead. If a patient suffered a stroke, it would have been unlikely for the hospital staff to check for recognition of Beethoven's 5th along with vital signs.
The prevalence of congenital amusia is estimated to be about 5% in the United States (Hyde and Peretz, 2004). The prevalence of acquired amusia is trickier to report because of the variability of the symptoms, the unlikelihood that it would be noticed in an acute hospital setting and the ability for those afflicted to recover at any given time (Schuppert et al.).
Music is everywhere and is often taken for granted. What happens to the person who does not have this gift? Why does it happen? Is there a way to get it back? Do those who buy Britney Spears albums have collective amusia? Researchers are now beginning to scratch the surface of this lesser-known disorder.
1. Hyde, KL and Peretz, I (2004). Brains That Are out of Tune but in Time. Psychological Science, 15, 356-360:
2. Ayotte, J., Peretz, I., & Hyde, K. (2002). Congenital amusia: a group study of adults afflicted with a music-specific disorder. Brain, 125, 238-251.
3. Schuppert, M., Munte, TF, Wieringa, BM, Altermuller (2000). Receptive amusia: evidence for cross-hemispheric neural networks underlying music processing strategies. Brain, 123, 546-559.