An interesting study suggests that some people are physically incapable of enjoying music.

For most people, the mere suggestion that a favorite song fails to evoke an emotional response in another human being sounds preposterous. Sure, that person might not like that song as much as you do, but they’ll definitely feel something — right?

Not necessarily, says Josep Marco-Pallerés, a cognitive neuroscientist at the University of Barcelona and lead author of a new study that explores why some people feel indifferent to music. “Music isn’t rewarding for them, even though other kinds of rewards, like money, are,” he says. “It just doesn’t affect them.”

This makes me think of the Amusica virus from Alastair Reynolds’ Century Rain, in which an entire civilisation lost its ability to appreciate music through a genetically-engineered virus, so that the cultural heritage from Beethoven to The Beatles was reduced to tuneless scratching noises.

Amusia (Not “Amusica”) might well explain to those of us who are so passionate about music that it becomes a major part of our lives why others don’t share our interests. But sometimes I wonder if there are people within music fandom who don’t actually like music as defined by that research.

This is not actually not as strange as it sounds. I’ve met people who are totally unmoved by melody, but love the stories in the lyrics, which might explain the continued popularity of some tuneless singer-songwriters.  And then there are the people who insist that it you claim to like both punk and progressive rock you “just don’t get it”; I get the impression that for them it was all about the excitement of the rock’n'roll lifestyle than any love of the actual music.

Does the same neuroscience can explain why so many of us who do share a passion for music have such widely divergent tastes?

For example, I find much fashionable indie-rock tuneless and unlistenable, yet their fans as just as passionate about it as I am for progressive rock, so they must be hearing something I’m not, and vice versa. I’ve heard it said that the variety of music you’re exposed to at an early age affects your musical appreciation later in life.

So, those of you who are (or aren’t) music fans. Why do you like the music you like? What is it you like about it? And what about the music you don’t like?

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5 Responses to Amusica

  1. PaulE says:

    For me it seems like the music has a direct connection to my emotions whereas the lyrics need to be understood and interpreted first. I can love the music after one or two listens- long before I have a clue about the meaning of the song. That isn’t to say that the lyrics mean nothing, but that it takes much longer to get there. Sometimes only after reading the lyrics printed in the CD booklet.
    I have always suspected that music journalists natural affinity with words makes them more likely to be people who are into the lyrics first.

  2. Tim Hall says:

    I’ve always thought that was the case, and explains why (for example) Bob Dylan is so highly revered.

    I remember glowing reviews of The Arctic Monkeys’ first album that talked entirely about the social observation in Alex Turner’s lyrics without mentioning the music at all. At least one was brave enough to say “If you tune out the lyrics, all the songs might as well be the same song”.

  3. ard sloc says:

    Is music so very different from other arts and our sensitivity to them? We like different things. “I think that I shall never see/a poem lovely as a tree”, said the unintellectual (?) nature lover. But then we can learn more. There’s a controversy going on about creative writing courses. They’re all rubbish; you’ve either got it or you haven’t (or words to that effect), says one professor of creative writing. But surely a deeper appreciation of how to listen to/look at/read any form of art can be learned, informally or maybe in such courses. Not replacing my early love of traditional jazz and brass bands, I have learned to appreciate “classical” orchestral music. But much of the visual arts remain a closed book, most probably because I have not bothered to learn enough about it.

  4. I have a strong attachment to certain songs lyrically, but I’m not automatically interested in a song just because of the lyrics (unless it’s something really personal).

    I also suspect one of the reasons music journos revere Dylan & the like is because it’s far easier to write about someone else’s lyrics than it is to write about their *music*.

  5. Tim Hall says:

    Yes, writing about music is hard, and you don’t realise that until you try. Especially if you want to avoid phrases like “The bridge resolves the rising chromatic pattern”.