It is very hard for those of us who derive so much pleasure, perhaps even excitement, from listening to music to even contemplate that for some people these sensations are as foreign as beautiful images are to a blind person.
Although music does not appear to provide humans with any obvious biological advantages its presence in all human cultures pre-dates recorded history. Likewise music does not have any utilitarian advantage for humans, like for example money has. Despite this music is considered to be one of the strongest providers of pleasure to the human race. This important role in human society has led many to consider that the ability to derive pleasure from music is universal.
However the assumption that the derivation of pleasure from music is universal has never been empirically tested. Until now.
A small percentage of us, upto 5%, have what is know as musical anhedonia. Anhedonia according to Wikipedia is defined as the inability to experience pleasure from activities usually found enjoyable, e.g. exercise, hobbies, music, sexual activities or social interactions. It is a form of pathological depression sometimes described as a passive joylessness and dreariness, discouragement, dejection, lack of taste, zest and spring in association with these activities.
It may express itself in some males in a sexual context where it is known as ‘ejaculatory anhedonia’. If a person has this condition they may ejaculate but have no accompanying sense of pleasure. Sexually anhedonic females similarly endure ‘so what’s the big fuss?’ orgasms.
In March Marco-Pallarés and a team of scientific colleagues from Barcelona, Spain and Montreal, Canada published the results of their research on musical anhedonia in the scientific journal Current Biology (Volume 24, Issue 6, Pages 669-704).
These scientists were able to specifically identify cases of musical anhedonia in otherwise healthy individuals. These people did not derive any pleasure from music but they did enjoy other stimulations. In particular they responded like any other person when presented with a monetary reward despite being cold towards music. This would appear to indicate that the access to the reward recognition/response systems in the brain are, for such people, different when faced with music or other pleasurable stimuli.
In their report they identified a group of healthy individuals who did not suffer from depression or generalized anhedonia but had reduced pleasure ratings and no autonomic responses when listening to pleasant music, despite having normal musical perception capacities. There is a different condition called ‘amusia’ where people are unable to perceive or recognise music – this is different to anhedonia which focuses on the perception of ‘pleasure’.
These music anhedonites showed normal behavioural and physiological responses towards money indicating that their low sensitivity to music was not due to a miss-functioning of their general ability to respond ‘pleasurably’ to rewards.
So these people appear to be able to hear the music, they can understand its components, structure, rhythm, etc. but it simply does nothing for them. Presumably most of us can think of some piece of music which does not interest us – for music anhedonites this applies to all kinds of music (yes even ‘Land of Hope and Glory’ at the Last Night of the Proms – sorry international readers!).
So next time you find yourself enjoying a merry sing-a-long just have some sympathy for any musical anhedonites who might be around you!
If you are interested in reading my other health focused articles try the following