MEMETERIA by Thomas May

Music & the Arts

Musical Anhedonia


You know that chilling moment when you try to introduce a friend to a piece of music you love — a piece of music that contains a little bit of the world’s meaning for you — and … nothing? That moment when it doesn’t just fail to register, but the other party has no interest in trying to figure out what turned you on in the first place?

This phenomenon can be shocking when you’re dealing with someone who normally does have some sort of musical response but who remains immune to the piece in question. I vividly recall trying to introduce an acquaintance years ago to the Heiliger Dankgesang from Beethoven’s Op. 132 — which is about as transcendent as music gets, as far as I know it — and being appalled by the evident reaction of boredom. For a moment, it felt like some sort of variant on the uncanny valley phenomenon.

I think we’ve all been there, but what I find truly unfathomable is an existence without music. Yet it turns out a new study whose results were just published in Current Biology suggests that music simply may not be as “universal” as we like to believe it is. A team of psychologists at the University of Barcelona found that possibly up to 5% (!) of the population cannot take pleasure in music — any music. Some people are simply, or rather, biologically, incapable of enjoying it, no matter how accessible we try to make the experience.

This is distinct from the well-known phenomenon of amusia and similar dysfunctions Oliver Sacks has described in Musicophilia. The Barcelona study also points out that the 30 student volunteers who participated — “healthy people with specific musical anhedonia” — “do not find music pleasurable, but enjoy other rewarding stimuli.”

From the abstract of the article (“Dissociation between Musical and Monetary Reward Responses in Specific Musical Anhedonia”):

Music has been present in all human cultures since prehistory, although it is not associated with any apparent biological advantages (such as food, sex, etc.) or utility value (such as money). Nevertheless, music is ranked among the highest sources of pleasure, and its important role in our society and culture has led to the assumption that the ability of music to induce pleasure is universal. However, this assumption has never been empirically tested.

In the present report, we identified a group of healthy individuals without depression or generalized anhedonia who showed reduced behavioral pleasure ratings and no autonomic responses to pleasurable music, despite having normal musical perception capacities. These persons showed preserved behavioral and physiological responses to monetary reward, indicating that the low sensitivity to music was not due to a global hypofunction of the reward network. These results point to the existence of specific musical anhedonia and suggest that there may be individual differences in access to the reward system.

Filed under: aesthetics, music news, musical research

4 Responses - Comments are closed.

  1. Carolyn says:

    I still remember the words of Steven Pinker who wrote in his book “How The Mind Works”:

    “As far as biological cause and effect are concerned, music is useless. It shows no signs of design for attaining a goal such as long life, grandchildren, or accurate perception and prediction of the world. Music appears to be a pure pleasure technology, a cocktail of recreational drugs that we ingest through the ear to stimulate a mass of pleasure circuits at once. Compared with language, vision, social reasoning, and physical know-how, music could vanish from our species and the rest of our lifestyle would be virtually unchanged”


  2. Anonymous says:

    […] biologically, incapable of enjoying it, no matter how accessible we try to make the experience. […]

    • Thomas May says:

      From this discussion thread:
      ‘You can find 5% of the population that don’t conform to any number of widely ingrained instincts, including the one that says murder is not so good. Genetic diversity (or genetic drift) is essential to evolution of life on Earth.’ Yikes – certainly do not intend to compare musical ‘anhedoniacs’ (?) to sociopaths… Also, fuzzy notions here of instinct, cultural learning, and ‘genetic’ propensity. Don’t forget: there’s no evident genetic benefit either for the vast majority who do enjoy music.


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