The Next Chapter

Tim Falconer on being a bad singer

Tim Falconer always wanted to be a singer. Being diagnosed as tone deaf didn't stop him.

Tim Falconer always wanted to be a singer. Being diagnosed as tone deaf didn't stop him.

Tim Falconer was diagnosed with congential amusia, a.k.a. tone deafness. That didn't stop him from learning to sing. (Marta Iwanek)

For many people around the world, singing is as natural as breathing. But not everyone can hold a tune. When Tim Falconer decided to take music lessons to learn how to sing, he found out why he'd never been able to carry a tune — he was tone deaf. That didn't stop him from following his dream, or from trying to better understand his dilemma.

Falconer wrote a book about the experience, Bad Singer: The Surprising Science of Tone Deafness and How We Hear Music, and he shared the story with Shelagh Rogers in Toronto.


Singing was one of the things that gave me the most joy. I have had two passions that have been with me my entire life: hockey and music. One of my favourite instruments was the human voice, and I wanted to be able to use it. When I am in the car alone, singing along, I don't care if I sound bad. No one hears it but me. There's no wrong way to listen to music. If it gives you joy, then that's a good thing.


A lot of people who sing badly say, "Oh, I'm tone deaf." But there are a lot of reasons why people sing badly. There is a scientific condition called congenital amusia, which only 2.5 per cent of the population has. I'm in a very small group of people. Amusia really has three parts. Perception — that's hearing; production — that's singing; and memory. Basically I have a really hard time hearing small differences in pitch and an even harder time reproducing small differences in pitch. It's really a condition about the brain pathway, between the temporal lobe and the frontal lobe. The analogy I like to use is roads. A musician has an interstate between those two lobes. I've got a little two-lane highway where I can't go very fast so the information travelling between those two parts of the brain doesn't move efficiently, it's not well organized and it's not working as well.


1. Elvis Costello

​Not a virtuosic singer, but few can match his ability to spit out anger and angst.

2. Neko Case

From the traditional country of her first album to her alternative­country gems to the luscious indie rock of her more recent work, she's the best singer of her generation.

3. Marvin Gaye

His '60s Motown hits are fabulous, of course, but his masterpiece was "What's Going On."

4. Thao

You can have your pop stars, I'll take Thao Nguyen's quirky, energetic singing.

5. Nick Lowe

After morphing through many incarnations — including punk producer, new wave pop star and country­rocker — he is now an unabashed crooner.

Tim Falconer's comments have been edited and condensed.