Disliking music is sometimes a tough position to occupy. I mean, who doesn’t occasionally find themselves reluctantly nodding in agreement when two guys at the pub can’t stop enthusing about how that Royal Blood record was the first album they’ve bought in five years. If you don’t like it, there must be something wrong with you, right? For most of us, the decision to dislike certain sounds often boils down to taste, composition, how you align yourself, and whether or not the people making it look like a bunch of twats or not. For some people though, music is a much more unconditional beast, and there are rare cases out there who find it practically impossible to like any music at all. These people are identified as being musically anhedonic. Anhedonia is the medical term assigned to someone who is incapable of deriving pleasure from things that most people find enjoyable. It was even the working title for Woody Allen’s Annie Hall, and if you’ve seen it, you’ll understand why. Recently, an experiment at the University of Barcelona investigated cases of music specific anhedonia, and found that 2% of their test population couldn’t find any enjoyment from music at all.
The study first identified individuals who didn’t listen to music as a hobby, and then tested them with numerous different pieces of music. One of the pieces included John Williams heartfelt score to Schindler’s List and the other: Tchaikovsky's Swan Lake. Those affected showed no changes during the music, however they were able to identify what they thought they should be feeling. This is what separated anhedonic listeners from those with amusia, which is a where a person can’t process music at all, and cannot identify one piece from another.In a bid to get my head around these clinical haters, I talked to one of the professors’ involved, Dr. Robert Zatorre, a neuroscientist at the Montreal Neurological Institute at McGill University about the effects of disliking music.So, what inspired the research into the field of music and how it affects the brain?Well, music is a basic human ability found in all societies and dates back to the beginnings of our species, so it seems important to understand how it works. Beyond that, it provides a window into brain function, since music involves essentially all of the most complex human cognitive abilities. So what effect can it have on the brain?It can have an effect on any of those systems: perception, attention, memory emotion, etc.What would be the characteristics of someone affected by musical anhedonia?They are perfectly normal in every other way that we can determine; they just don't get pleasure from music. We verified that they had normal ability to perceive music and other sounds (they did); we verified that they were not generally anhedonic or depressed (they weren’t); we made sure they obtained pleasure from other things such as food, sex, social contact, sports or money (they did); we even checked if they were able to understand emotions present in a musical passage, such as sadness, joy or tension (they could). So there is a disconnect between their perceptual system, which is intact, and their pleasure system, which is also intact, but the two aren't talking to each other as it were. What's your definition of anhedonia?
There are standard definitions in use by psychiatrists, with appropriate scales. Basically, it's an inability to feel pleasure from normally pleasurable events. It's often associated with depression. But, as I said, our musically anhedonic folks did not show any of that. What did the experiment involve?First, we developed a scale of musical pleasure and gave it to about 900 people in order to find those who scored very low (about 5% of the population). Then we tested the 5%, alongside a control group who scored normally, by asking them to listen to pieces of music independently selected as being highly pleasurable. Sure enough the musical anhedonics indicated on a rating scale that they did not feel any pleasure. More importantly, we also measured their physiology (heart rate and skin conductance) and there was very little response, whereas the control group responded with large physiological changes.How could you be sure it was only music they disliked?Well, to see if their reward system was acting normally, we tested them with a well-established gambling task that most people would find very rewarding (because you win unexpected amounts of money). Our musical anhedonics liked that as much as anyone, and furthermore showed normal spikes in their heart rate and skin responses when they got a big payout. That's how we know their reward system was functioning normally. Why do you think we place emphasis on music as a social tool?
That comes back to our brain. It's natural because we have the brain circuits to understand music as a communication tool, to convey and express emotions, and to regulate emotions (our own, and those of others). In addition, music's rhythmic properties are often cited as a key social function because people often move in sync to music, such as dancing for instance. How would someone with anhedonia respond to a piece of music that would make you or I tap our feet?We are testing that right now. It looks like they show normal activity of the auditory areas, as we expect, but there’s no response in the striatum, which is the region involved in pleasure and reward within the brain.Do anhedonics feel maligned by others for their rejection of music?Many of the musical anhedonics told us that they didn't go around advertising the fact that music leaves them cold, because they didn't want others to think they were weird. Also, since music is often used socially (at parties or whatever), they said they didn't want others to think they were antisocial. After the paper came out several people wrote to us to say "thank you for recognising that we are the way we are and that there's nothing else wrong with us.”Thanks Doctor Zatorre!Follow Dan on Twitter: @keenDang