[ tohn-def ]
/ ˈtoʊnˌdɛf /
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unable to distinguish differences in pitch in musical sounds when producing or hearing them.
unable to perceive public sentiment, attitudes, or preferences: The council’s politically tone-deaf plan would cost lower income residents $100 a year.
lacking emotional insight; insensitive or unsympathetic to others: She is often tone-deaf to her daughter’s needs.
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Origin of tone-deaf

First recorded in 1890–95


tone deaf·ness, noun
Dictionary.com Unabridged Based on the Random House Unabridged Dictionary, © Random House, Inc. 2022


What does tone-deaf mean?

Tone-deaf is used literally in the context of music to describe a person who is unable to distinguish between different pitches in tone or sound, as in I’m tone-deaf, so I have trouble singing the right notes.  

Tone-deaf is commonly used in a (sometimes playfully) critical way to describe a bad or inexperienced singer, whether or not they are actually unable to distinguish differences in sound.

Tone-deaf is also used figuratively to describe a person who ignores or seems to be oblivious to public sentiment or preferences, especially when they do something that offends or upsets a large number of people. It’s also commonly used to describe the actions or words of such people, as in After months of resident complaints about noise violations in the neighborhood, the planning commission’s vote to allow a new nightclub to be built seemed completely tone-deaf. 

Tone-deaf is especially applied in cases in which a person is insensitive or uncaring about the emotions or hardships of other people, as in The athlete apologized for his insensitive, tone-deaf comments about fans from impoverished neighborhoods. 

The noun form of tone-deaf is tone deafness (note that it isn’t usually spelled with a hyphen), as in The movie was universally panned due to its tone deafness in depictions of the war.

Where does tone-deaf come from?

The first records of tone-deaf come from the 1890s. It is a combination of the words tone, meaning “a distinct musical pitch,” and deaf, meaning “partially or wholly unable to hear.” The figurative meanings of tone-deaf use a figurative meaning of deaf—“being unwilling to hear or listen to something.”

The figurative sense of tone-deaf is often used in harsh criticisms. The term implies that a person is either ignorant and out of touch with society or is uncaring and lacks empathy. Usually, tone-deaf is used to suggest a person has biases or is totally oblivious to the problems of a group or class that they are not a member of.

For example, a wealthy person is likely to be called tone-deaf if they suggest that poorer people should purchase expensive things or pursue expensive hobbies that they lack the money to pay for. A film director might be called tone-deaf for depicting a highly unpopular figure in a sympathetic light, especially in the midst of increased public criticism of such a figure.

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What are some other forms related to tone-deaf?

  • tone deaf (adjective, alternate spelling)
  • tone deafness (noun)
  • tone-deafness (noun, alternate spelling)

What are some words that share a root or word element with tone-deaf

What are some words that often get used in discussing tone-deaf?

How is tone-deaf used in real life?

The figurative sense of tone-deaf is often used to describe a person as being out of touch or holding offensive or unpopular stances.



Try using tone-deaf!

Is tone-deaf used correctly in the following sentence?

The CEO was criticized for giving a tone-deaf speech that completely ignored the actual grievances of his employees.

How to use tone-deaf in a sentence

British Dictionary definitions for tone-deaf


unable to distinguish subtle differences in musical pitch

Derived forms of tone-deaf

tone deafness, noun
Collins English Dictionary - Complete & Unabridged 2012 Digital Edition © William Collins Sons & Co. Ltd. 1979, 1986 © HarperCollins Publishers 1998, 2000, 2003, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2009, 2012