tone deaf
In scientific terms, tone deafness is called amusia, and it affects about four percent of the population Image Credit: Unsplash/Andrija Radojevic

Do you know someone who always struggles during karaoke night? No matter how hard they try to match the rhythm of the song and understand musical pitch, they usually seem to fall short.

Click start to play today’s Spell It, where one person’s ‘roar’ can quickly turn into another’s ‘bray’.

Not everyone has pipes like Tina Turner. But those among us who may be the worst at comprehending how to strike out a tune may actually be tone deaf. Scientists have found that tone deafness is a genuine neurological condition – not just a label we assign to someone jokingly.

In scientific terms, it’s called amusia, and it affects about four percent of the population, according to a February 2017 study in the European Journal of Human Genetics. Although such people are able to recognise environmental sounds, human voices and the rhythm or musical quality of speech, when it comes to music, they have difficulty processing melodic information.

The condition is hereditary, according to a report in US-based science news website LiveScience. While some individuals with amusia are aware they have it, others can live their whole lives without knowing about the condition.

Here are a few famous people through history, who likely have or had amusia:

1. Florence Foster Jenkins

A wealthy socialite in the US in the 20th century, Jenkins dreamed of being a musician from a young age. But when an injury ended her career as a pianist, she turned to opera, despite discouragement from friends and family. Jenkins became known for her notoriously poor singing skills – something doctors theorise may have partly been because she was unable to hear herself perform. Jenkins became a sort of cult sensation, and sang at a sold-out show in New York’s Carnegie Hall, at age 76. Her life was turned into a 2016 film, starring Academy Award winner Meryl Streep.

2. The Shaggs

Often touted as the ‘worst band in the world’, The Shaggs comprised sisters Dot, Betty, Helen and Rachel Wiggin. They formed their band after a series of palmreading predictions came true for their father. Although they had no musical training, the sisters were forced to write and record songs, by their superstitious father. Their one and only record – Philosophy of the World – received horrendous reviews, all bemoaning the poor songwriting and performance. But it became an underground hit with several musicians. The Shaggs’ record was described as being a favourite of US-based magazine Rolling Stone critic Lester Bangs and Nirvana’s Kurt Cobain.

3. Mrs Miller

Another cult favourite who rose to fame in the 20th century, Mrs Miller was a casual singer who began her musical career by giving away her recordings to children at orphanages. She was discovered by radio jockey DJ Gary Owens, who played her music on the airwaves as a joke. But Mrs Miller propelled to fame, as a result, and released her debut record in 1966. It sold over 250,000 copies within a matter of weeks, and hit the number 15 spot on US charts. She remained a novelty act, despite the chagrin of critics, one of whom compared her voice to “roaches scurrying across a trash can lid”.

What do you think of tone-deaf musicians chasing their dream? Play today’s Spell It and tell us at