For many of us, listening to music goes beyond just a leisure activity. It’s the soundtrack that affords cinematic grandeur to activities as banal as getting the bus to work. It’s the backdrop to our agony and ecstasy; our nights out and our hangovers the next day. Whether you're into the soft meditations of Frank Ocean or the thrashing chords of Teenage Fanclub, it can be difficult for music lovers to imagine not experiencing it so intensely. But for the estimated three to five percent of the population who experience musical anhedonia, listening to music offers little to no pleasure.
To understand musical anhedonia, it’s helpful to consider what happens to the brains of music lovers when they listen to music they like. “You’re hearing a complex sound so you get a lot of brain activation,” says Professor Sophie Scott, a neuroscientist at UCL. “When you hear a song you have a real emotional connection to, there’s data showing that your brain’s reward system is engaged. You get a release of neurotransmitters which are associated with winning a real prize, so there’s an element of the enjoyment that you’d get from something physical like gambling or recreational drugs. But, crucially, you only get this response through music you like.”
In a sense, musical anhedonia can be defined as the absence of this reaction. “There was a study done with people with anhedonia where they were played music and didn’t even show a hint of this reward response,” Professor Scott says, “but they did show it if you scanned them while they were gambling and they won. It’s not that their reward systems aren’t active, they’re just not activated by music.” It’s not so difficult to imagine what this is like: in a sense, we all experience musical anhedonia when we listen to a song that does nothing for us. It’s just that they experience that with all of it.
For some people, musical anhedonia is a life-long trait, while in other cases it may be a response to trauma or a symptom of disorders like depression (“it’s not a disorder in and of itself,” clarifies Professor Scott.) It could be something that changes over time, or something you’re stuck with. Some don’t miss listening to music, while others really, really do. I spoke to a number of people who have experienced musical anhedonia, for different reasons and in different ways. Here are some of their accounts.
Westin: “I've learned it can be a deal-breaker when dating”
I've always had a disconnect with music. As a kid, I'd sing along to certain songs on the radio with my family, but it felt a bit forced and I mainly just did this because other people were. It wasn't until late high school, when I genuinely stopped caring what others thought of me, that I was more open about not liking music.
I've experimented with quite a few different genres – everything from country to rap to EDM and heavy metal – but it's all essentially the same to me. I can enjoy certain songs for their lyrics if they're well-written, but at that point I'd rather just read the lyrics like a poem. I also sometimes get a kick out of picking certain instruments from a more complex score, such as orchestral soundtracks. That's only if I'm incredibly bored, however.
I do sometimes feel like I'm missing out. The idea of just hearing some sounds and having it move you to literal tears is very alien to me and I think it'd be fascinating to experience something like that. I've definitely accepted it, though. The most depressing aspect is that it tends to be a deal-breaker for a lot of people. I've had a handful of dates go very well and seem like they could turn into something more, but upon learning I don't like music, it's just too much for them. It's a consistent reminder that music means a lot for a ton of people, and sharing that with others is very important to them too.
Matt: "At festival shows, I'd have no idea what to do with my hands and body"
I grew up in a 'musical house' (although I hate the idea of calling it that). My dad was in bands all his life and he was constantly playing the guitar. I found it incredibly irritating and still do. We'd go on these long drives down the country and we'd always have to listen to some awful prog music. Eventually I managed to get out of it by convincing them to listen to audiobooks.
For my 18th birthday my friends all chipped in and got me a ticket to Oxygen (a festival in Ireland). I really didn't want to go but I couldn't throw such a thoughtful gift in their faces. I enjoyed every bit of it except the actual music (and the toilets). At the Foo Fighters, all my friends were doing festival things like putting their hands in the air or singing along or whatever and I had no idea what to do with my hands or body or anything. I thought everyone looked ludicrous. I remember some lad I didn't know leaning over and saying in my ear “what's your problem?” because I had my arms folded. Not enjoying music was alienating, but also tinged with this feeling of superiority I had about not liking it. Basically, I thought everyone else was the idiot for liking it rather than realising I was the weird one.
Things changed when I was 21. I was the station manager of my college radio station and I became friends with the music editor. I started listening to his radio show and something just clicked. He kind of de-pretentious’d music for me and convinced me I was wrong for thinking it was pretentious. I can safely say I'm now genuinely into music. I listen to it, I read about it, I watch documentaries about it.
I’m not sure whether I regret the years I didn’t like music. I didn't go through any phase of trying to look like I was in Razorlight, unlike most of my friends,. I'm glad I don't have any nostalgic attachment to the shit, apolitical indie music of the early 2000s.
Jeffrey: "Right now, I have 22 songs I can listen to, from my whole life"
I never really thought about the fact that I didn’t enjoy music until I was around 12, when the difference in my feelings for music became a lot more obvious. I remember people listening to and talking about it all the time. In most social circles you had to be able to talk about music, or else you would be left out. So I listened to other people’s music, but I just couldn't get into it.
I would occasionally find a song that would bring me a small amount of enjoyment, but that always faded after I listened to it a couple of times. As of right now, I have a total of 22 songs that I sometimes listen to in the car. That's all the music I've been able to muster from searching my whole life. Half of these songs come from anime, video games or movies, and most of them have no vocals. My taste could be described as something like "epic music" – it tends to evoke feelings of action or pumps you up. Even this, though, doesn't make me feel all that much.
I have always been odd. Musical anhedonia was just another way I felt different than others. I feel like I've missed out on friendships and social situations because of it. But I don't really feel like I am missing out from feeling an emotional reaction to it. Personally, I would find it annoying feeling something every time I heard a song. Emotion often clouds judgement, so having emotion be brought to the surface by sounds seems like a disadvantage.
I have definitely accepted that unless I receive some kind of weird brain injury, I will never enjoy music like other people will. It doesn't bother me that I don't feel much from music. What bothers me more is the social isolation and loneliness it can contribute to. I wish musical people were more accepting of non-musical people.
Raluca: "Could I never hear music again and be fine? Yep"
I was probably in my late twenties when I properly realised I didn't like music, which is weirdly quite late. I'd moved in with my boyfriend and he had music on all the time. Once there was no getting away from it and it was always in my space, I realised I didn’t enjoy it. If I was alone (and that is still the case to this day) I would never have music on. We had many conversations, even rows, about it, but I mainly made out like the problem was just that it was too loud. Maybe because “I just don’t like music” is such a weird thing to say.
I do feel like I’m missing out on a big part of the human experience, but it’s not something I think about a lot. I find it an odd thing (I've never met anyone else with this). I’ve definitely come to accept it, but I don’t talk about it really. I've mentioned it in the past to people and I feel it makes me look ‘not fun’ or like someone who isn’t intelligent or cool enough to get the genius of, I don’t know, Bowie. I do get it on an intellectual level, I really do, but does it do anything for me, emotionally? No. Could I never hear any of it again and be just fine? Yep.
I understand why people love music and believe that it's genuine. But I also think a lot of it is affectation (and I accept that I may be wrong, and this might just be lack of empathy on my part), especially when someone is very intense about it. Oh, you can’t go on if you can’t listen to the Chemical Brothers at least once a day? "Stairway to Heaven" makes you cry? Please.
I am more of a visual person for sure. I enjoy film and visual art, especially the modern, unusual, whimsical ‘my child could have made that’ stuff, installations, etc. I paint sometimes (badly), I’ve made jewellery and been in some terrible am-dram as an adult. I have felt emotional in the presence of incredible nature or architecture. I AM FUN, dammit!
Christopher: "Every day I try to listen to music, to find some pleasure in it, but I just feel blank"
After smoking a marijuana strain that was either grown with pesticides or simply too strong, I have been experiencing musical anhedonia for about five months. I was an avid vinyl collector before and it's extremely painful to stare at a collection sitting and gathering dust because it's almost of no use anymore. The shame of not being able to understand the beauty of a Berlin industrial track just makes me sad, because I've almost forgotten how good they are.
Every day I try and listen to music to see if any sparks occur, but I never feel any pleasure, no matter how good the songs are. It’s just blank. I don’t want to sing the lyrics. There is no attachment to any song, no matter the depth of nostalgia it had previously. It’s amazing how our brains can work and what they are capable of. I think that every time after I listen to a song and I just feel nothing.
I have been able to find pleasure in other things, though. I’ve always been a big fan of fashion, mainly shoes, so I’ve been replacing my time with that. I am glad I can still appreciate aesthetics and the beauty of some artwork, but I don't feel a surge of joy when I see something marvellous –instead I see it from a logical standpoint. Ever since the anhedonia hit, I've had to change my way of thinking about things.
This article originally appeared on VICE UK.