Two friends sent me links to the NPR story on musical anhedonia, in which researchers in Barcelona found that about 5% of people tested in their study do not receive pleasure from music. The study was published this past Thursday in the journal Current Biology. The results have been picked up by the media and widely reported.
Medicaldaily.com says that “The researchers found that there were some people — who were otherwise ‘healthy and happy’ — who simply do not enjoy music and ‘show no autonomic responses to its sound, despite normal musical perception capacities.’ These same people did, however, respond to monetary rewards. This means that the lack of sensitivity to music was unique, and not an abnormality involving the entire reward region of the brain.”
As reported by NPR, and by my own quick read of the paper (a version of which can be found here), the claims made by the authors come from two related collections of data. The first was a questionnaire administered by the authors to 804 participants for a study about responses to music to gauge emotion. (The authors repeated the study with some tweaks to a new group of 605, and in a third round to 252 people.) You can take the test – called the Barcelona Music Reward Questionnaire – here.
It was from the answers to this questionnaire that about 5% of the people self-reported that they do not have pleasurable responses to music.
The second phase of the study was to study 30 college-age individuals who were asked to listen to music judged pleasurable by other college students, while being monitored for changes in their heart rate and skin conductance, which are considered physiological measures of emotion. As reported by NPR, “The people who had said they got no pleasure from music showed no physical response, while the music lovers did. ‘The other participants reported chills when listening to music,’ lead author Josep Marco-Pallarés comments. ‘With our anhedonic group, they had no chills. They had no real response to music.'”
This squares with my observations at the Unitarian Church of Montpelier. My experimental protocol is not exactly tightly controlled, but I am reasonably confident of my findings. When it comes time to sing hymns, the church has a tradition of choir members coming to the front of the church and turning to face the congregation. (This is, presumably, to support and encourage those in the congregation who might feel insecure about the hymn tune or the quality or strength of their voice.) As a choir member who doesn’t find singing hymns challenging, this affords me the wonderful opportunity to watch the rest of the congregation as they sing.
Even allowing for individual preferences based on the specific hymn being sung, or some individuals’ total lack of enthusiasm for singing in general, I would say that about 5% of the congregation not only does not sing, but appears by the expression on their faces to be emotionally indifferent to the lyrics or music.
But here’s a possible extension of the idea of 5% incidence of musical anhedonia. If roughly 5% of the population is never emotionally responsive to music, I’m wondering (based on personal experience) how much time the rest of us – the 95% – are similarly unresponsive to music.
I am certainly a person who is highly invested in music, but music does not always evoke a pleasant response from me. There are times when it is an obnoxious intrusion, an absolute invasion of privacy, a bully who won’t leave me alone. There are times when I hear music playing and am embarrassed and offended to be associated with the profession. Particularly sensitive times for me are when I am trying to read or write, walking in the woods, eating out at restaurants, or being assaulted by another person’s car stereo.
The reason, of course, is that music is not primarily a sensory experience, but an associative one, and one can’t fully commit to any other activity when there’s music playing. Hook me up to machines that measure my heart rate and skin conductance while listening to music at the wrong time (or God forbid, with the wrong music), and I think you’d find me as musically anhedonic as anyone.
And I’m proud to say that.