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Tim Falconer

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Profile: Tim Falconer uses his own tone deafness to explore how we respond to music in Bad Singer

JuneFrontmatter_Profile_TimFalconer_orangeTim Falconer will not be singing at the launch party for his new book, Bad Singer: The Surprising Science of Tone Deafness and How We Hear Music. He knows he’s disappointing his publicist, but he’s not budging.

Falconer suffers from amusia, more commonly known as tone deafness. He acts as his own subject in this, his fourth book, as myriad scientists, vocal coaches, and friends confirm his poor singing ability. Falconer uses his disorder to explore what humans hear and respond to when listening to music.

“Amusia is a brain disorder similar to dyslexia,” he wrote in a recent post on his website. “And if I’d written a book about being dyslexic, no one would respond to my invitation by saying, ‘I’ll come only if you read for us.’”

A valid point. And besides, Falconer has already put himself through plenty during the near-decade-long process of making Bad Singer, published in May by House of Anansi Press.

The seed of the idea came in 2007, during a stint in the Banff Centre’s literary-journalism program, in which the presence of a baby grand piano in Falconer’s studio and the 10,000 songs in his digital library got him thinking about how he could possibly love music so much when he had such trouble singing in key.

Then came arduous singing lessons with the venerable Micah Barnes, formerly of a cappella band the Nylons. Painstaking lab tests at the International Laboratory for Brain, Music and Sound Research in Montreal, Harvard Medical School’s Music and Neuroimaging Lab in Boston, and the Science of Music, Auditory Research and Technology Lab at Ryerson University in Toronto followed, culminating with a performance at a house concert that he put off for so long it caused him to turn in his manuscript almost a year late.

“I did a stupid amount of stuff,” says Falconer. “I should’ve walked away. It was a lot of work. But I was driven to do it. It’s like with hockey. I could just watch it, but I get even more enjoyment out of playing it. So if I love music, I feel like I could get even more enjoyment out of making it.”

The scientific research was funded in part by a Canadian Institutes of Health Research Journalism Award Falconer won in 2010 to write about music and health, which turned into a National Magazine Award–winning article for Maisonneuve, a radio documentary for CBC Radio’s Ideas, and, eventually, after narrowing the focus of his proposal from a general music-appreciation work to one about congenital amusia, the book for Anansi.

The tests confirmed that Falconer is part of the 2.5 per cent of the population who has the disorder, which results in difficulty processing pitch, among other things, and causes the majority of its sufferers to dislike listening to music. Falconer’s love of music perplexed Isabelle Peretz, co-director of the International Laboratory for Brain, Music and Sound Research and a pioneer of amusia research, which led to more experiments and Falconer’s obsession with uncovering how what he hears differs from what a non-amusic hears.

Falconer’s self-deprecating humour keeps Bad Singer’s tone lighthearted and as entertaining as the photos of him hamming it up as a singer on the book cover. Lines like “I’m a bad singer. And deep down, it matters” produce an undercurrent of sorrow, but far more pronounced are his curiosity, vulnerability, and perseverance. It’s a deeply human book, and his most personal.

“I teach at Ryerson, King’s College, and, this summer, at the Banff Centre, and I’m always pushing my students to go deeper and be more honest,” Falconer says. “I do worry that people will read the book and go, ‘Yeah, he is a subhuman freak.’ There’s always a risk when you’re writing about yourself that someone might think, ‘He’s an obnoxious asshole and I don’t like this.’ We’ve all read books where we can’t stand the characters. I want to be liked.”

Anansi editorial director Janie Yoon says her team was drawn to the book’s combination of personal narrative, science, and music. “The cross-current of non-fiction genres and categories in one book creates a wholly unique reading experience,” she says.

Although Falconer jokes about how he’s become an expert in something he can never be an expert at, he also recognizes his inherent “comparative advantage” regarding the subject: considering the small number of amusics and the even smaller number who love music and can write books, he’s quite possibly the only person who could ever have written this one.

“We’ve been making music for at least 40,000 years and we still don’t really understand it,” Falconer says. “It’s a fairly new area of research – not just amusia but music cognition. Scientists don’t really understand what’s happening when we’re listening to music. It’s still a mystery, and that’s pretty cool.”