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Bad Singer: The Surprising Science of Tone Deafness and How We Hear Music

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In the tradition of Daniel Levitin’s This Is Your Brain on Music and Oliver Sacks’ Musicophilia, Bad Singer follows the delightful journey of Tim Falconer as he tries to overcome tone deafness — and along the way discovers what we’re really hearing when we listen to music. Tim Falconer, a self-confessed “bad singer,” always wanted to make music, but soon after he starts sin In the tradition of Daniel Levitin’s This Is Your Brain on Music and Oliver Sacks’ Musicophilia, Bad Singer follows the delightful journey of Tim Falconer as he tries to overcome tone deafness — and along the way discovers what we’re really hearing when we listen to music. Tim Falconer, a self-confessed “bad singer,” always wanted to make music, but soon after he starts singing lessons, he discovers that he’s part of only 2.5 percent of the population afflicted with amusia — in other words, he is scientifically tone-deaf. Bad Singer chronicles his quest to understand human evolution and music, the brain science behind tone-deafness, his search for ways to retrain the adult brain, and his investigation into what we really hear when we listen to music. In an effort to learn more about his brain disorder, he goes to a series of labs where the scientists who test him are as fascinated with him as he is with them. He also sets out to understand why we love music and deconstructs what we really hear when we listen to it. And he unlocks the secret that helps explain why music has such emotional power over us.


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In the tradition of Daniel Levitin’s This Is Your Brain on Music and Oliver Sacks’ Musicophilia, Bad Singer follows the delightful journey of Tim Falconer as he tries to overcome tone deafness — and along the way discovers what we’re really hearing when we listen to music. Tim Falconer, a self-confessed “bad singer,” always wanted to make music, but soon after he starts sin In the tradition of Daniel Levitin’s This Is Your Brain on Music and Oliver Sacks’ Musicophilia, Bad Singer follows the delightful journey of Tim Falconer as he tries to overcome tone deafness — and along the way discovers what we’re really hearing when we listen to music. Tim Falconer, a self-confessed “bad singer,” always wanted to make music, but soon after he starts singing lessons, he discovers that he’s part of only 2.5 percent of the population afflicted with amusia — in other words, he is scientifically tone-deaf. Bad Singer chronicles his quest to understand human evolution and music, the brain science behind tone-deafness, his search for ways to retrain the adult brain, and his investigation into what we really hear when we listen to music. In an effort to learn more about his brain disorder, he goes to a series of labs where the scientists who test him are as fascinated with him as he is with them. He also sets out to understand why we love music and deconstructs what we really hear when we listen to it. And he unlocks the secret that helps explain why music has such emotional power over us.

30 review for Bad Singer: The Surprising Science of Tone Deafness and How We Hear Music

  1. 4 out of 5

    Emmkay

    I'm someone who has had 'pitch problems' but longed to be able to sing, and in fact took lessons for that purpose, but I still have a lot of insecurity around it. So I was certainly curious to read about Tim Falconer's efforts to explore why he's a "bad singer" and attempt to cure it. It's a meandery, affable book about much more than tone deafness: I learned about experimental science involving what the brain does with music, ethnomusicology, timbre, lots of stuff, in the midst of Falconer's ac I'm someone who has had 'pitch problems' but longed to be able to sing, and in fact took lessons for that purpose, but I still have a lot of insecurity around it. So I was certainly curious to read about Tim Falconer's efforts to explore why he's a "bad singer" and attempt to cure it. It's a meandery, affable book about much more than tone deafness: I learned about experimental science involving what the brain does with music, ethnomusicology, timbre, lots of stuff, in the midst of Falconer's account of his music lessons. He doesn't discover a cure and it's not a how-to book, but it's interesting and inspiring.

  2. 5 out of 5

    Lenore

    This is a really wonderful book. Well written and entertaining. A man who is diagnosed with tone deafness takes voice lessons because he loves to sing. Then this leads to more in depth studies of music and how we hear it, what we enjoy about it, what music is all about. A really great story.

  3. 4 out of 5

    Ellen Lyons

    My life story! So well written and the kind of inspired that cries out: "don't try this at home!" My life story! So well written and the kind of inspired that cries out: "don't try this at home!"

  4. 5 out of 5

    Lisa

    Super interesting and engaging the whole way through. I couldn’t stop telling people about “the book i was reading” the whole time.

  5. 4 out of 5

    Janelle

    Journalist Tim Falconer loves music. He glories in concerts and plays albums on repeat until the neighbors complain. Unfortunately, like most of us, he’s pretty sure he’s a bad singer. Falconer decides to do something about that by signing up for singing lessons, and then learns the truth: he’s not just a bad singer, he’s diagnosed as tone deaf. As Falconer explains in the book, “tone deafness” is not really a thing, but there’s a real diagnosis behind it: “amusia”. Only about 2% of folks are amu Journalist Tim Falconer loves music. He glories in concerts and plays albums on repeat until the neighbors complain. Unfortunately, like most of us, he’s pretty sure he’s a bad singer. Falconer decides to do something about that by signing up for singing lessons, and then learns the truth: he’s not just a bad singer, he’s diagnosed as tone deaf. As Falconer explains in the book, “tone deafness” is not really a thing, but there’s a real diagnosis behind it: “amusia”. Only about 2% of folks are amusic, with some people struggling with hearing small shifts in pitch to “beat deafness” to those who primarily struggle with re-creating the sounds they hear. Amusics typically find that their condition leaves them ambivalent to music. Falconer himself is particularly unusual in that, unlike most amusics, he adores music. I found this book enormously interesting, if a bit long. Falconer balances his ongoing struggle with music lessons both before and after his diagnosis with discussions of the science of tone deafness. He is quick to laugh at himself in his personal narrative, and does a great job of keeping science at the popular writing level. This book is an ode to singing. It’s a call to arms (throats?). There’s a wonderful chapter in the beginning that points out that people have become quite reluctant to sing. Young children sing loudly with very little prompting and ample gusto. But somewhere between 8-10, most people are told they “can’t sing”, and give up singing in public. (Witness this particularly awful example.) We now are steeped in the voices of well-trained singers (and those who get a bit of a technical boost) almost from birth. The radio, television, and now the internet mean that we see the end result of experts but not the early stages when they were learning. The result is that we’re no longer willing to listen to unpolished, untrained voices. Singers who might have once been “the best in the church choir” are no longer being compared against the congregation, they’re being weighed against Ariana Grande and other radio stars, and found wanting. The magic of making music has been pulled into the realm of the professional and people are no longer willing to do it badly, a lesson I am taking to heart these days since I am learning a musical instrument for the first time. Fun fact: pop culture’s most famous “bad singer” William Hung was actually singing “She Bangs” on pitch on the first try on American Idol, a phenomenal feat. But, as Falconer explains, pitch isn’t the only thing that made his performance the butt of countless jokes. Bad Singer is an engaging, and quick read. If it doesn’t convince you to sign up for singing lessons, it might inspire a karaoke outing with friends.

  6. 4 out of 5

    Washington University Libraries

    Tim Falconer, author of Bad Singer (House of Anansi Press, 2016), loves music. He cherishes fantasies of singing his favorite songs before adoring fans. There’s just one problem: he’s a bad singer. In this bittersweet yet entertaining autobiography, Falconer’s love of music confronts his adult diagnosis with amusia, or tone deafness. From weekly lessons with a voice teacher to clinical studies at the International Laboratory for Brain, Music and Sound Research, Falconer struggles to understand ho Tim Falconer, author of Bad Singer (House of Anansi Press, 2016), loves music. He cherishes fantasies of singing his favorite songs before adoring fans. There’s just one problem: he’s a bad singer. In this bittersweet yet entertaining autobiography, Falconer’s love of music confronts his adult diagnosis with amusia, or tone deafness. From weekly lessons with a voice teacher to clinical studies at the International Laboratory for Brain, Music and Sound Research, Falconer struggles to understand how he can find music so moving, and yet, apparently, not fully comprehend what he hears. He’s good at rhythm, passable at recognizing melodic contour, but downright awful at matching pitch. In fact, his bad singing is often not a matter of wrong notes but of singing the right tune in the wrong key. I recommend Bad Singer to anyone who mumbles the national anthem at ball games, to any musician who’s ever been baffled by a bad performance, and to all parents who wonder whether paying for Junior’s music lessons is really worth it. As far as Falconer is concerned, any money spent on music is money well spent—even if you’re a bad singer. Recommended and reviewed by University Libraries' Karen Olson

  7. 4 out of 5

    Jane Gowan

    This book is a fabulous read. It is heartfelt, honest, and well-researched, with a myriad of great anecdotes interspersed with actual science. Falconer's love and understanding of music comes through loud and clear and totally in key, and you find yourself rooting for him in his quest to discover the truth about his singing ability. A word to the wise - don't ever EVER tell someone they can't sing. This book is a fabulous read. It is heartfelt, honest, and well-researched, with a myriad of great anecdotes interspersed with actual science. Falconer's love and understanding of music comes through loud and clear and totally in key, and you find yourself rooting for him in his quest to discover the truth about his singing ability. A word to the wise - don't ever EVER tell someone they can't sing.

  8. 4 out of 5

    Helen

    Three and a half stars. An entertaining book about the science of music perception, focussing on how the brain perceives music and written from the point of view of a rare “amusic”, who has a brain deficit in pitch perception. Tim Falconer explores his love of music and his quest to learn to sing, despite being completely tone deaf, and intersperses his personal story with much of the science of music perception. I would have preferred a bit more of the science and a bit less about Tim’s taste i Three and a half stars. An entertaining book about the science of music perception, focussing on how the brain perceives music and written from the point of view of a rare “amusic”, who has a brain deficit in pitch perception. Tim Falconer explores his love of music and his quest to learn to sing, despite being completely tone deaf, and intersperses his personal story with much of the science of music perception. I would have preferred a bit more of the science and a bit less about Tim’s taste in music, but it was still a fascinating and very readable book.

  9. 5 out of 5

    Yue

    Fun and informative! Personally, fascinated by the fact that I have so many things yet to learn and understand about brain and ear.

  10. 4 out of 5

    Allison Dunlap

    I gained a lot of understanding and empathy for my ex-husband who's tone deafness always mystified me. I also gained some real knowledge on singing processes that are so second nature, I've never thought to consider the wonder of it all. It gave me pause as to how our musical tastes are created; by exposure, by identifying with a singer or a genre of music. The very singers he likes are the ones I don't particularly care for but now I at least understand peoples' preferences who are different th I gained a lot of understanding and empathy for my ex-husband who's tone deafness always mystified me. I also gained some real knowledge on singing processes that are so second nature, I've never thought to consider the wonder of it all. It gave me pause as to how our musical tastes are created; by exposure, by identifying with a singer or a genre of music. The very singers he likes are the ones I don't particularly care for but now I at least understand peoples' preferences who are different than my own.

  11. 5 out of 5

    Peter Knapp

    Fun read that provides a layman's summary of research into "amusia" - a condition where the person has difficulty discerning and/or producing accurate pitch. Falconer is one such person. He's a writer, so this is a personal journey, which makes it much more engaging and real: he loves music, really wants to be a singer, but is simply bad at it - you feel his pain. The book recounts his journey to learn how to sing, with the help of a very patient voice coach, and his in-depth testing and consult Fun read that provides a layman's summary of research into "amusia" - a condition where the person has difficulty discerning and/or producing accurate pitch. Falconer is one such person. He's a writer, so this is a personal journey, which makes it much more engaging and real: he loves music, really wants to be a singer, but is simply bad at it - you feel his pain. The book recounts his journey to learn how to sing, with the help of a very patient voice coach, and his in-depth testing and consulting with multiple researchers along the way. It ends with a nice capstone experience, which I'll not spoil.

  12. 5 out of 5

    Anne Martin

    The way the book is presented, I was hoping to get some explanations, or maybe even a solution about how to change anybody in a decent singer. Alas, no. You get huge lists of names, this person who worked for the Beatles, this one for the Clash, etc, and they have all turned into music teachers for bad singers. You are promised revelations about the way the brain deals with music, I'm still looking for them. Finally, the author sang two songs in front of 35 persons, after years of training. Were t The way the book is presented, I was hoping to get some explanations, or maybe even a solution about how to change anybody in a decent singer. Alas, no. You get huge lists of names, this person who worked for the Beatles, this one for the Clash, etc, and they have all turned into music teachers for bad singers. You are promised revelations about the way the brain deals with music, I'm still looking for them. Finally, the author sang two songs in front of 35 persons, after years of training. Were the songs well sung? I don't know... I belong to the people who cannot sing. I've always known it, since I was 6 or 7, meaning when you can hear the difference, I know a couple of things, like the importance of paroles which make it easier to be in a decent pitch. Surprisingly, the author hardly speaks of it. I gave up around 10. If it is impossible, no use spending so much energy for no results. I hoped finding some answers here, but sadly, nothing.

  13. 5 out of 5

    Julia

    I enjoyed this book very much. I'm not sure if I'm actually tone-deaf, but I do know that I can't sing, no matter how hard I try....I'm always off key. I can hear that I'm off, but I don't seem able to fix it. I enjoyed reading about the author's experiences and feelings about being tone-deaf, and there was a lot of educational material in the book. I felt I learned a lot from it, and the topic was interesting. Recommended! I enjoyed this book very much. I'm not sure if I'm actually tone-deaf, but I do know that I can't sing, no matter how hard I try....I'm always off key. I can hear that I'm off, but I don't seem able to fix it. I enjoyed reading about the author's experiences and feelings about being tone-deaf, and there was a lot of educational material in the book. I felt I learned a lot from it, and the topic was interesting. Recommended!

  14. 4 out of 5

    Robert Hubbard

    This is an amazing book. It's written in a journalist's low key style, so the complex ideas are made easy to understand. The language is pretty ordinary and makes for a quick and satisfying read. It is remarkable how this book addresses my own insecurities as a musician and singer. There are a number of useful insights for anyone. Whether you sing well or don't,there is something here for you. I enjoyed just observing his progress. Well done. This is an amazing book. It's written in a journalist's low key style, so the complex ideas are made easy to understand. The language is pretty ordinary and makes for a quick and satisfying read. It is remarkable how this book addresses my own insecurities as a musician and singer. There are a number of useful insights for anyone. Whether you sing well or don't,there is something here for you. I enjoyed just observing his progress. Well done.

  15. 5 out of 5

    David

    "Bad singer: The surprising science of tone deafness and how we hear music" by Tim Falconer was great. I had no idea people studied tone deafness. I loved how Tim Falconer with great enthusiasm attempts to learn how to sing. All the music teachers he sees say it can be done. Apparently they haven't really met someone like him. A tone deaf person. Good science writing. "Bad singer: The surprising science of tone deafness and how we hear music" by Tim Falconer was great. I had no idea people studied tone deafness. I loved how Tim Falconer with great enthusiasm attempts to learn how to sing. All the music teachers he sees say it can be done. Apparently they haven't really met someone like him. A tone deaf person. Good science writing.

  16. 5 out of 5

    Vicki

    Also recommend listening to the podcast of the documentary: http://www.cbc.ca/radio/ideas/the-bal.... Most of what is in the documentary is also in the book, and while the book has more information, you can hear exactly how bad a singer he is. Fascinating stuff for music teachers like myself! Also recommend listening to the podcast of the documentary: http://www.cbc.ca/radio/ideas/the-bal.... Most of what is in the documentary is also in the book, and while the book has more information, you can hear exactly how bad a singer he is. Fascinating stuff for music teachers like myself!

  17. 4 out of 5

    Rob

    I enjoyed this book for a number of reasons. First, I enjoy singing, but I am one of those people who was always rejected for my primary school choir, so I sympathize with Mr. Falconer’s plight. Of course, I don’t think I’m tone deaf. Anyways, this is a fun romp through the science of singing and listening, made more relatable and sympathetic by the author’s quest to improve his own singing.

  18. 4 out of 5

    Daniel Field

    Loved this. Any book that references David Byrne's How Music Works repeatedly has my undivided attention, and I enjoyed the combination of science, personal journey, and connection to music (Falconer has exquisite musical taste!). A perfect complement to This Is Your Brain on Music, Byrne's book, and some similar nonfiction books about why and how we listen to and create music. Loved this. Any book that references David Byrne's How Music Works repeatedly has my undivided attention, and I enjoyed the combination of science, personal journey, and connection to music (Falconer has exquisite musical taste!). A perfect complement to This Is Your Brain on Music, Byrne's book, and some similar nonfiction books about why and how we listen to and create music.

  19. 4 out of 5

    Jane

    This was a great read and I learnt a lot about how we hear music. It was a little painful to read about the author's persistence with singing lessons but kudos to him! A must read for anyone interested in music. I won this book from the publisher as part of the Goodreads giveaways program. This was a great read and I learnt a lot about how we hear music. It was a little painful to read about the author's persistence with singing lessons but kudos to him! A must read for anyone interested in music. I won this book from the publisher as part of the Goodreads giveaways program.

  20. 5 out of 5

    Kate

    An interesting look how we perceive music. Brains are weird and fascinating, as per usual. I did the BRAMS amusia test online and aced it (I wasn't worried I was tone deaf). An interesting look how we perceive music. Brains are weird and fascinating, as per usual. I did the BRAMS amusia test online and aced it (I wasn't worried I was tone deaf).

  21. 4 out of 5

    Joy Woodward

    Grabbed this off the library shelf. Fascinating, and entertaining, too.

  22. 4 out of 5

    Frances Nokes

    Interesting and enlightening. So many layers of perception, whether appreciating, playing, or remembering music.

  23. 5 out of 5

    Eric Rodrigues

    As a singer (Not tone deaf I would hope), this book resonated heavily! I loved the research portion of this. It's so engaging and sucks you into the likable author's story with ease. As a singer (Not tone deaf I would hope), this book resonated heavily! I loved the research portion of this. It's so engaging and sucks you into the likable author's story with ease.

  24. 4 out of 5

    Oliver Henderson

    A combination of diary, research review, and music lesson, this book is a window into the way singing is perceived by most people...a mysterious gift.

  25. 4 out of 5

    Bill Leach

    This is the story of the author's attempt to understand his inability to sing, his attempts to understand it through testing and his attempts to overcome it through singing lessons. He is apparently amusical: a deficit in fine-grained pitch discrimination suffered by 4% of the population. Much of the book is made up of descriptions of his testing which show little other than he is largely tone deaf, of his singing lessons and of descriptions of his music collection. None of this provides any sub This is the story of the author's attempt to understand his inability to sing, his attempts to understand it through testing and his attempts to overcome it through singing lessons. He is apparently amusical: a deficit in fine-grained pitch discrimination suffered by 4% of the population. Much of the book is made up of descriptions of his testing which show little other than he is largely tone deaf, of his singing lessons and of descriptions of his music collection. None of this provides any substantial results, making it repetitive. Falconer's big question is that why, if he is amusical, does he enjoy music so much. The author consults various persons about this. Gillian Turnbull, a Ph.D. ethnomusicologist suggests "To me, it's totally strange that tone deafness is even a thing, because there is so little emphasis placed on pitch in any popular music today." Frank Russo, a professor of Psychology at Ryerson University, says "We think our experience of music is about sound and it's about pitch, but we're wrong. Music is this mushy signal that is deeply moving, but we don't really know what it is, what it's trying to convey." Falconer plays with the idea that he is listening more to the lyrics than the music, but rejects that. In the end he comes across the idea of timbre in music (hadn't he done any reading?) and concludes that his enjoyment of music is due to the tone color as opposed to the melody or harmony.

  26. 4 out of 5

    Amuse

    A man's journey into singing in public. The author reviews lessons, academic studies, what psychologists know about music, etc. Really interesting material if you skip some of the details around academic pitch studies. A man's journey into singing in public. The author reviews lessons, academic studies, what psychologists know about music, etc. Really interesting material if you skip some of the details around academic pitch studies.

  27. 4 out of 5

    Karen

    I enjoyed his broader observations about the many ways we discourage people from singing and about how singing together used to be a much more common activity. I also liked reading about the specifics of what he was learning in singing lessons. But overall it felt disorganized.

  28. 4 out of 5

    Aisa

    An interesting take on amusia-- definitely worth hearing from someone who has it. I found it got rambly at times, especially in the latter half. But I thoroughly appreciated the humor and human-focused storytelling throughout.

  29. 4 out of 5

    John Woakes

    I did not finish this book. I took it on holiday as a light read. I cannot sing either. The author is tone deaf but loves music. This book is his journey, via a voice coach, to learn how to sing. It is a slow and painful journey and I don't know if he made it. Along the way he goes through a battery of tests to try and discover what his problem is - voice control, hearing or some brain dysfunction? He learns a lot about how we listen and make music. And interspersed with all this is some history I did not finish this book. I took it on holiday as a light read. I cannot sing either. The author is tone deaf but loves music. This book is his journey, via a voice coach, to learn how to sing. It is a slow and painful journey and I don't know if he made it. Along the way he goes through a battery of tests to try and discover what his problem is - voice control, hearing or some brain dysfunction? He learns a lot about how we listen and make music. And interspersed with all this is some history of people who have battled with the same issues and the history of the science. I was enjoying it but didn't really have time for it. Now I am back home I have lost interest and have decided to take it back to the library.

  30. 4 out of 5

    Mills College Library

    781.11 F183 2016

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