I would like to know why humans can detect a note out of tune relative to the scale or harmony. We seem to be born with the ability to notice, so why can't every able-hearing person sing or play an instrument in tune?

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    I'm really interested in this question, but it might be a better fit for the cognitive science site, cogsci.stackexchange.com. Questions about if abilities are inborn or not are a mainstay of cogsci, and it'd be great to get some answers from serious research.
    – Karen
    May 20, 2014 at 10:28
  • This is my first visit to music.stackexchange, and I'm appalled at the low quality of the answers to this question so far (except mine, which currently has -1). None of the other answers show any appreciation for the existing research in this field, or the music theory and physiological implications of the question. Instead they are opinions and personal anecdotes. It's enough to make me steer clear of this site in the future. May 20, 2014 at 13:27
  • @foobarbecue the question was not interpreted as the question in the title. The question I interpreted was "If hearing is easy, why isn't performing?" Nobody teaches you to hear, you might have taken it too literally? Have you actually answered the question? May 20, 2014 at 13:54
  • @LeeKowalkowski indeed the question does not correspond to its title. The question appears to be "Why aren't we born with perfect pitch?" while the question title is "Are we born with the ability to detect dissonance?" I've tried to answer both. May 20, 2014 at 14:45
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    @foobarbecue I should have known better than to talk about stuff with which I wasn't familiar. :) thanks for the info - I didn't know pentatonic scales were basically a subset of the 12 note
    – apnorton
    May 20, 2014 at 17:08

8 Answers 8


The foundation of scales and relative tonality is the fact that all humans are innately able to detect intervals. We can detect an octave because an octave is two notes where one is twice the frequency of the other. Similarly, there are basic proportional relationships between the frequency of two notes that are fifth, or a third, or a whole step apart but they are harder to detect because the relationship is less obvious. In a fifth, for example, one note is a vibration 2/3 as fast as the other. The innate ability to react to relative intonation gives rise to the fact that minor keys sound different from major keys, and notes out of tune often sound "wrong" even to people with no musical training. The less obvious a tonal freqency relationship, the more learning is involved. Almost everyone can tell that an octave sounds "right" and a 7 1/2th is "wrong" with no training. So far I have not found any research indicating that any culture has a scale system that is not based on the octave (see this article, these music theory class notes and the Wikipedia section on consonance and dissonance which answer your question better than any of the answers here). Because of the instrinsic physiological phenomena of the interval, Eastern and Arabic scales are based on the same intervals as Western scales and just have more or fewer steps. Arabic, Chinese, Japanese, and Ancient Greek (Syntolydian) musical scales are all based on the octave, demonstrating that the human ability to detect that interval is nature rather than nurture.

The fact that an A above middle C is 440hz, however, is arbitrary ("absolute") and therefore must be learned. Some people seem to be better at learning to recognize absolute frequencies and these people are often said to "have perfect pitch." This perfect or absolute pitch is what is required to tune an instrument or sing a certain pitch with no reference. It is not held in common across cultures; for example the frequency of the base note Kung in Chinese music was often changed by the emperor (although it is usually treated as almost the same as a western F). It must have been very hard to learn perfect pitch when your base note changed over time!

In conclusion, YES, we are born with the ability to detect a note out of tune relative to another note (helps if it's an octave or fifth), but NO, we are not born with the ability to detect a note out of tune on its own.

  • We have discussed major and minor sounding happy and sad here before, and the conclusion is that that only applies to western music, and is cultural - there is no absolute factor that makes minor sad, only our experiences
    – Doktor Mayhem
    May 20, 2014 at 9:48
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    Yes, I could believe the emotional context of major and minor are learned. What I actually meant is that there is an intrinsic ability to distinguish between the two; edited my answer to reflect this. Anyway, that was ancillary to the answer itself which is the only one here that considers the physics / music theory behind the question. Might you reconsider your downvote? May 20, 2014 at 13:13
  • I'm puzzled! Yes, we are born with the mechanics (i.e. hearing), but that doesn't mean we are born with the ability to decide whether a note is correct in a given context. Whilst interesting, the musical theory and associated physics are observations or patterns, they don't explain why we can tell a note is out of tune. I'd be more inclined to believe scientific explanations along the lines of when a note is out of tune it triggers the same neurological pathways as when we experience pain (OK, discomfort). May 20, 2014 at 15:54
  • @LeeKowalkowski, the evidence (above) says otherwise. We are born with the ability to decide whether a note is correct in certain situations. Those are situations where the intervals have integer frequency ratios, as I've explained. For example, when I first started playing cello with no previous musical experience, like all cellists I was able to tune the instrument by playing double stops. This is because when fifths are out of tune, they sound awful and produce a "beat" en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Beat_(acoustics)#Sample . Fifths and octaves are easy for brains to detect. May 20, 2014 at 16:47
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    @Lee the human brain is highly specialized for pattern recognition. That in-tune notes follow a pattern is exactly why we can tell when one is out. The out of tune note breaks that pattern. Also: Why would a pain response be more palatable to you? That there may be one still wouldn't explain the why. It just moves you to a new 'Why is there a pain response to an out-of-tune note?'
    – Mr.Mindor
    May 20, 2014 at 16:47

If one watches those [insert nation here]'s Got Talent programmes, especially the audition phase, most people will be able to tell the difference between people who are good at [insert talent here] and those that are not.

Having the performer's skill is not required in order to be a judge, you're only required to understand what the performer is trying to achieve.

Are we born with this ability? Probably not, no. Some genres of music (and other art forms) are let's say 'an acquired taste'.

This study says people prefer music that is 'familiar' http://www.plosone.org/article/info%3Adoi%2F10.1371%2Fjournal.pone.0027241. I remember one of my lecturers at university once talking about how it is our experience matching our expectations that results in enjoyment. There are sometimes musical pieces that take a few listens before we realise how beautiful they are.

I don't think we're born with it, I think it is learned, based on exposure.

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    And while on the topic, it's generally known in mathematics/computer-science that recognizing a correct/good solution is a simpler task (for most everyday cases) than coming up with a correct/good solution ... it applies as a general rule to other things as well, including cognition etc. in my opinion.
    – mmtauqir
    May 20, 2014 at 3:54
  • The preference might not be genetic, but sounds do penetrate into the womb, so it is technically possible to have an acquired taste that you are born with. (No, I'm not suggesting that Fetal Mozart raises IQ.) May 20, 2014 at 13:36

Everyone is "born with" the ability to learn a language, but not everyone pays attention to their spelling.

It's simply a matter of being attentive to the right things and learning to increase your accuracy and responsiveness.

Both language and music are learned skills, but only the groundwork is in our biology. Everything else is education, be it explicit or immersive.


"I like to know why humans can detect a note out of tune relative to the scale or harmony."

Why questions are never easy to answer since it is not clear what the one who asks is prepared to settle for.

"We seem to be born with the ability to notice,"

I would say that this is not as easy as it seems like.

I was born and grew up in Western Europe, and I can distinguish consonance and dissonance in a well-tempered tone system. At the same time, I can enjoy, say, vocal music from the middle east, and I can sense that they use tones that are outside the western well-tempered tone system. However, I cannot sense whether they sing "out of tune"; It seems this is very much something that you learn, not something that is inbred.

"so why can't every hearing abled person sing or play an instrument in tune?"

This seems yet something completely entirely different. To me, being able to hear, is entirely separate from controlling your voice, and again entirely separate from playing an instrument.

  • How do you know you couldn't sense a middle-eastern singer being out of tune? I'm pretty sure I could, though I know little about arabic scales. Only, bad performances are rather unlikely to ever make it to Westerner's ears! — Also: I doubt you hear "in a well-tempered tone system", otherwise Barbershop singing ought to sound pretty horrible to you. You hear just intonation and leading notes and you're used to the 12-edo approximation of these concepts. May 20, 2014 at 10:18
  • @leftaroundabout Right, my remark about well-tempered is off; I just meant my hearing is adjusted to western division of the octave in 12 semi-tones, and I can hear, within limits, whether an instrument is playing out of tune with regard to that system. I mean, not an individual instrument, but when multiple intruments are playing together. w/re to the music from the middle-east: I can hear they are singing intervals that are smaller than a semi-tone, but I couldn't say if they hit those out of tune with regard to their tone system. Hope that clears it up. May 20, 2014 at 11:14
  • Well, my question was: have you actually heard any out-of-tune middle-eastern performance yet, without noticing anything wrong? I haven't, but I think I would notice it if they hit the 3/4-tone steps wrongly. Because, and that was my point about 12-edo temperament, the piano keys are not really how most listeners categorise notes. Rather, you notice certain intervals within the harmonies and melodies, and those intervals can be derived from some kind of just intonation; the principles are the same in Western through Indian music, though the tunings restrict you to different groupings. May 20, 2014 at 11:25
  • @leftaroundabout It's a good question - I don't know if I heard it. I wouldn't have, if my hypothesis is true :p I am familiar with just vs well-tempered intonation, and how they relate to each other. But I cannot find any text that explains how Maqam tuning system is "derived" as you put it from just intonation. Do you perhaps have a link so I can read up on that? May 20, 2014 at 12:57
  • Good point, you wouldn't notice wrong 3/4 steps if you don't notice wrong 3/4 steps! — As I said, I know close to nothing about Maqamat (is that the correct plural?), but they certainly are not derived from 24-edo like dodecacophony is from 12-edo, but from something different. Singers will tune intuitively according to some physical / physiological guide, and whatever that is in Arabic music it should be perceptible to the listener as well. May 20, 2014 at 17:07

The answer in my experience is both yes and no.

First, not all human ears are equally sensitive to differences in pitch. Also, an ear which can discriminate well in one pitch range may have more difficulty with a different range. For example, a musician I know can tune a guitar by ear very quickly, but struggles to tune a bass guitar. His ear just has more difficulty with the low ranges.

Second, identifying when two pitches are different is a skill that improves with practice. A musician's ability to identify notes out of tune improves as their experience with their instrument increases.

Also, you asked about singing. To sing in tune is very different from tuning a guitar. You have to learn the intervals between the notes, so you can "hear" the next note in your head before you sing it. You also have to train your voice, so it can reliably produce the note you hear in your head. People who sing along with the radio may have learned the pitches through listening to the song repeatedly, but without practice they will probably not sing every note in tune.

So my short answer is that most humans are born with what they need to make music, but to sing or play an instrument in tune requires practice and training.


You'd like to know why we (or many of us) are born with the ability to detect a note out of tune. I think I can speak for all of the readers here when I say that we would all love to know why we are born with any ability or disability. In fact, I don't think it's much of a stretch to say that we would all love to know why we are born at all. Truth is, we don't know, although some of us won't admit it.

"Tone deafness" is actually very common. Just listen to an average crowd singing "happy birthday" and this will become clear. The ability to recognize, organize, and reproduce sounds that you hear is innate, much in the same way that the ability to recognize, organize, and reproduce colors that you see is innate. So, just as color blindness is something you are born with, tone deafness is also.

A good (not perfect, see Roland's answer) way to test for tone deafness is to see if a person can reproduce a note that they hear. If not, then that person is very probably tone deaf.

My father is tone deaf. This became clear to me at a very early age, because he sang a great deal anyway. It became clear early on that when it came to songs, Dad knew the words and Mom knew the tunes. My father also picked up the recorder and learned to play, however he would not know if he was missing a sharp or flat from the key signature until one of his kids hollered to him to fix it.

My mother, on the other hand, is very musical. Of their seven children, five can sing in tune, one can sing pretty much in tune, and the other is a really, really nice guy. Interestingly, one of his kids shows considerable talent for singing.

So, I believe that the ability to recognize pitch is either there or not there. If you have it, you can improve it, but if you don't have it, nothing that you do will put it there.


"We seem to be born with the ability to notice,"

This might be the norm, but exceptions do exist.

I personally can't tell when people are out of tune (unless they are drastically), neither can I tell that two notes are one octave apart, they just sound like different notes. Additionally, when a key change happens mid song (typically for the last verse) I have no idea that it's happened.

These factors mean that even when following music or other singers I am frequently told I'm out of tune - however I tend to be better when I've got someone who's singing in a pitch I'm happy to follow, trying to follow someone 1 or 2 octaves away from my range will mean I'm going to be out of tune.


I have occationaly come across articles about singing birds have absolute (perfect) pitch, which indicates that this is not taught, but based on nature. When I searched for this now, I found this interesting publication by Terry Bossomaier and Allan Snyder. They claim that the mechanisms for absolute pitch exist in us all, but access is inhibited during early maturation.

They also have a section about animals related to this (on page 3 in the PDF), where they reflect about some singing birds using scales in their singing:

The hermit thrush uses a pentatonic scale, the canyon wren all 12 semitones. Are these behaviours imitation and manipulation of complex (absolute) spectra, or do they embody any sense of key, or, are animals more like human infants? The answer seems to be the latter.

A large part of the publication is about methods describing how absolute pitch may be switched on by turning off parts of the brain responsible for the inhibition.

As for why not everyone is able to sing in tune according to their ability to recognize out of tune, there might be several reasons.

  • It might be they don't know technically how to correct their voice pitch to the right one.
  • It might be that they are not able to hear that it's them that does not sing right (is it me or is it you...).
  • In the cases where they actually do have absolute pitch, they are not able to sing "out of tune" of the absolute frequencies, which make them out of tune if the instruments are tuned in a slightly different pitch. See this.

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