Research from Goldsmiths, University of London suggests that individuals who are tone-deaf may find it harder to read others’ emotions.

A study found that participants diagnosed with congenital amusia (an inherited defect in musical memory, recognition or processing pitch which affects 4% of the population) were less likely to accurately identify silent facial expressions and emotional vocalisations than those with a typical music-processing ability.

Impaired socio-emotional processing in a developmental music disorder (published in Nature journal Scientific Reports) summarises the findings of a study carried out by Goldsmiths psychologists Professor Lauren Stewart and Professor Daniel Mullensiefen with Dr César F. Lima and colleagues from Goldsmiths and UCL.

24 participants were asked to judge the emotion in extracts of emotional speech, nonverbal vocalisations and silent facial expressions, before a second test in which they had to indicate whether they felt laughs were posed or genuine, and to what extent they were contagious.

Compared to the control group, the study’s 13 amusics were impaired for all stimulus types, including vocal and facial expressions, and gave more ambivalent responses.

This suggests that developmental music disorders can affect socio-emotional cognition in other subtle ways.

According to the researchers, the regions of the brain implicated in processing socio-emotional information are the same as those suggested to be abnormal in people with amusia.

‘We’ve researched the condition for some time, but little is known about it beyond the musical domain because people with the condition don’t often report other difficulties,’ said Professor Stewart.

‘Previous studies found that amusia can be associated with other impairments outside music, but they’ve focused on speech processing rather than other visual and auditory cues. We recognise that ours is a small study, but as an early indicator it suggests that further work needs to be done.’