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Review: Tim Falconer’s Bad Singer is a treatise on understanding our bodies and their true limitations

In Bad Singer Tim Falconer documents his struggles with amusia, a disorder that affects how someone processes pitch.

Neville Elder/The Globe and Mail

Title
Bad Singer: The Surprising Science of Tone Deafness and How We Hear Music
Author
Tim Falconer
Genre
Non-fiction
Publisher
House of Anansi
Pages
325
Price
$29.95
Year
2016

We live in an age where, perhaps bolstered by the "normal" stars of reality TV, everybody thinks they can do anything.

It's not an entirely terrible thing that the rash of home renovation or cooking or talent shows has empowered a whole generation to truly believe that, if they put their mind to it, they can appear as gifted as any so-called specialist. Unless they, obliviously, overconfidently build a kitchen that collapses upon a food-poisoned sub-par magician; then it's pretty terrible of course.

If there's a great equalizer in curbing one's enthusiasm, it's the human body. The things we aspire to mentally don't always sync up with what our flesh and bones will actually enable us to do. In some cases, we can train ourselves, say, to jump higher or become particularly learned in a trade. But, sometimes, no matter how much we want something, our brains or maybe our ankles, just say "nope."

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That's the heartbreaking premise of Bad Singer, a personal story by award-winning Canadian journalist Tim Falconer about being a huge music fan who suffers from amusia, or tone deafness. Falconer has no illusory interests of becoming a professional singer; he's just an outgoing guy with broad musical interests who wants to know why he seems to hear and casually sing songs differently than his peers.

It's the singing – always off-key, occasionally arrhythmic – that has Falconer concerned and self-conscious. He tries singing lessons with former Nylons member Micah Barnes, a patient but no-nonsense instructor who believes in Falconer despite his obvious limitations keeping pitch and his resigned work ethic, which is adversely impacted by a sense that his is a hopeless case.

A series of rigorous, private yet humiliating tests reveals that Falconer suffers from amusia, a brain-wiring affliction he shares with only 2.5 per cent of the population. Most sufferers can live with amusia because music doesn't register with them; they simply don't care about it because they are physiologically predisposed not to.

But Falconer is essentially obsessed with music. He proudly discusses the myriad shows he's been to, the records that mean the most to him, and he name-drops favourite artists, including Neko Case, Calexico, Lucinda Williams, the Rolling Stones, and Bonnie (Prince) Billy, among others. He even goes so far to suggest that the Beatles and their omnipresence mean nothing to him. So, (and this is no slag of my favourite Liverpool band of all time) beyond simply being into music, it's fair to say that his taste is cool.

As he continues to take more tests and meet more specialists, Falconer's case continues to baffle and astound them. When they monitor his ability to hear certain notes or measure the beats in a rhythmic figure, he is frequently off-the-charts wrong. When they ask him to sing songs, as ingrained as Happy Birthday, his high and low notes are oddly interchangeable, even after frequent exercises and lessons to help him hit such marks accurately. And again, most amusics simply do not engage with music with the fervour that Falconer does, which drives scientists a bit batty, as they strive to get at what he's hearing and why.

The connection between physiological and psychological harmony here is fascinating, going as far as suggesting that "guitar face," as a visual cue practiced by the late B.B. King, is an essential aspect of communicating and interacting with sound for both the player and the patron. Breathing properly, which we all think we do just fine until we attend a yoga class, becomes a breakthrough moment for Falconer, too, and, when he can get over the bursts of trauma about having amusia, he is able to focus and sing better. He even dares to plan a semi-public performance.

As it goes, Bad Singer is a treatise on understanding our bodies and their true limitations. The more Falconer engages with his music-processing issues, the more he begins to recognize how much confidence and technique can impact his ability to partially overcome his inability to sing. It's a remarkable story of dogged determination to prove his own body wrong and, as such, is one of the more illuminating cultural studies of modern times.

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Vish Khanna is a journalist and broadcaster who hosts the Kreative Kontrol with Vish Khanna podcast.

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