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The Cognitive Basis for Florence Foster Jenkins' “Tone Deafness"

28 September 2016

The brilliant film portrayal by Meryl Streep of the tone-deaf diva Florence Foster Jenkins is amplified in the historian Darryl W. Bullock's fine new book, Florence ! Foster !! Jenkins !!! the Life of the World's Worst Opera Singer (Overlook Press, New York, 2016). I offer here a scientific postulation for this striking example of "dysmusia " (or tune-deafness), of which she was quite likely cognitively unaware.

Born in July 1868 as Narcissa Florence Foster, she was dedicated to her piano lessons, showing a real aptitude for music. At age 8 she gave her first piano concerts, was considered a musical prodigy, and was said to have played at the White House. In 1881 she opened the 2nd half of the Wilkes-Barre City Hall Gardens program with the piano solo Polonaise, being singled out at age 13 for her "mastery of the instrument, lightness of touch and rapid action".

Why, then, would her later efforts at vocal (operatic) performance have been so miserably off-key? In 1886, she was wed to a Dr. Frank Jenkins, she being only 18 and he age 34. Bullock tells us, "It is clear that he was unfaithful to her: Florence is rumored to have caught syphilis from Frank, and the treatment which in those days involved ingesting a mixture of mercury and arsenic, caused her to go bald, and may well have affected her state of mind."

After moving to New York, Florence started performing initially as a pianist, joining the prestigious musical society called the Euterpe Club. Yet many people who heard her sing attested to its awfulness. Her long-time lover St. Clair Bayfield summed up her magic after she died: "She had perfect rhythm. Her interpretation was good and her languages wonderful. She had star quality. … She was a natural born musician. But 'instrument' (i.e., her voice)…there was very little instrument."

Neuropathological Hypothesis
Florence Foster Jenkins' inability to sing on key might reflect either of two medical problems:

(a) Tertiary syphilis, which itself can cause hair loss, may afflict many parts of the brain, including those centers believed crucial for detecting when particular notes in a melody are out of tune or key. Dr. Kevin Mitchell's treatise in Scientific American-MIND (Jan. 18, 2011), entitled The Neuroscience of Tone Deafness, proposes a structural disconnection, supported by neuroimaging experiments, whereby frontal areas are more weakly coupled to posterior auditory areas.

Mitchell explains, "The brains of people with amusia can detect discordant notes just fine --- they are simply not aware of it. Their brain knows but their mind does not.” Florence was not actually demented, yet sang as if she were unaware of this handicap.

(b) The life-long therapeutic ingestion of mercury by FFJ could itself have been neurotoxic as well.

Whether from mercury poisoning and/or from tertiary syphilitic encephalopathy, this talented but tone-deaf coloratura has left us an intriguing legacy for neuroscience to ponder.

Melvyn Ball, MD, Professor Emeritus (Neuropathology),Oregon Health & Science University, Portland, OR, USA