The term tone deafness is one that is frequently overused, sometimes to the offense of those patients that truly do experience this difficulty. This term refers to the complete inability to recognize music for its tonal and melodic qualities. Tone deafness is referred to scientifically as amusia. This is a disorder that was recognized a little more than a decade ago. People started to recognize the fact that the student's inability to learn or listen to music did not necessarily correlate with their underachievement in any other subjects.
After a music teacher reported that one of her students was completely unable to sing, tell the difference between two pitches, or keep rhythm/time, researches began a project that would study the progress of 14 ten to thirteen year old subjects. In this study they asked the children to listen to thirty minutes of popular music a day for one month. At the end of this month, the children would be reassessed with the same tests that allowed their entrance into the study. Upon this assessment, they found that not only did the children once again fail the test, but most of them declined in their musical ability.
In later studies, scientists found that there were structural differences as well as functional differences that occurred in the brains of amusia patients. When patients were studied, they were asked to identify popular tunes. Most of the patients initially said they had never heard the tune before. However, later on when they were given printed lyrics of the songs separate from the melody, some were able to recognize the song. There were also differences in the amounts of white and gray matter in the frontal and auditory cortexes.
"Even as the picture of what's going on in the brain becomes more clear, it's hard to really understand what it must be like to be completely tone deaf, just as, for people with amusia, its probably hard to understand what the big deal is." Most people with amusia don't have any idea what they are missing in the musical world ;-(.