In his memoir Speak, Memory, Vladimir Nabokov reflected: Music, I regret to say, affects me merely as an arbitrary succession of more or less irritating sounds.
The furor over Lolita may have died down, but this confession still has the power to shock. Did the man just say he doesnt like music? Thats not a matter of preference, such as not caring for sports or pets; its a pathological condition.
Accordingly, its been given one of those Greek-derived diagnostic labels that allow us to imagine weve established a scientific truth rather than merely invented a term: musical anhedonia.
And it gets worse: you might have congenital amusia (no laughing matter). Thats when, despite the universality of music, you find yourself in that minority of individuals who, according to The Oxford Handbook of Music and the Brain, present with very specific musical deficits that cannot be attributed to a general auditory dysfunction, intellectual disability, or a lack of musical exposure.
In other words, there are people who dont get on with music even though theyre not deaf, stupid or ignorant.
Musical anhedonics are thought to account for up to 5 percent of the worlds population. (But how could neuroscientists possibly know that? And if its true, that would beermalmost four hundred million people!)
The syndrome is often discussed in the same articles that ponder the mysteries of autism. The subtext is that normal people feel and react in certain ways (e.g. laughing at the right moments, getting chills when they hear sublime sounds), and that abnormal peoplethe autists, the anhedonicsdont.
As someone who is on the spectrum, I do understand what its like to have a brain that functions differently from other peoples. Does this mean that something has gone wrong with me? Respect for neurodivergence is all very well, but not all differences are desirable. There is such a thing as a glitch on the human assembly lineglitches that result in serious problems like blindness, paralysis, missing limbs, intellectual impairment.
Yet Im also mindful that notions of normalcy are used by dominant social groups to maintain control and to organize systems in ways that suit them. Historically, its a scarily short time ago that homosexuality was classified a disease and feminism was seen as a disorder that might require surgery. How judgmentally normative is a normal relationship with music?
Musical anhedonics are thought to account for up to 5 percent of the worlds population.
Strikingly, a musical anhedonic who offered himself for study at Bostons Northeastern University told one of the professors that admitting to not liking music was rather like coming out as gay. The problem was not his relationship with music per se, but his relationship with the normal people who couldnt tolerate him being different. The researchers didnt seem very interested in this social alarm bell. Instead, they used biomedical imaging to study the auditory regions of his cerebrum.
Another thing the researchers do is measure what happens to the tiny hairs on an anhedonics arm, noting when those dermal filaments fail to respond as they should. I cant help wondering what would happen if you were someone who hadnt yet discovered the music you could love. What if your soul was holding out for sub-Saharan Gnawa or ancient Tuscan dances, which you werent destined to hear until years later, and instead the researchers played you Bach and The Beatles and U2 and Charlie Parker and Van Halen and finally Whitney Houston, and then pronounced you as malfunctioning because your arm hairs didnt budge during I Will Always Love You?
What intrigues me about musical anhedonia, and the 5 percent of the human population who supposedly suffer from it, is the possibilityindeed, the likelihoodthat 5 percent is an underestimate. I strongly suspect there are a lot more than four hundred million people out there who would rather opt out.
The analogy with coming out as gay is useful here. We know there are lots of homosexuals around, because faking ones sexuality is so difficult to sustain. Gay people who try to live as straights keep colliding with their desires, over and over, and those collisions have consequences, whereas the absence of a love for music can be much more easily managed. The music lovers assume youre no different from them and, to keep the peace, you let them believe that. You learn to talk the talk of music-love.
In private, youre free to do without the stuff, and doing without it doesnt hurt. In public, you will often be assailed by those unwanted sounds, but, as one anhedonic put it (unconsciously echoing Nabokov), music sits in an odd spot halfway between boring and distracting.
Being bored or distracted is hardly hellish torture. You could cope with it all your life and never shed a tear or cause a scene.
The real problem, then, is other people.
In our society it is considered shameful not to appreciate music. By our society, I mean those who regard themselves as part of Culture, an amorphous elite anyone can join. In Shakespeares The Merchant of Venice, noble Lorenzo mistrusts the man that hath no music in himself, the man who is not moved with concord of sweet sounds,while Friedrich Nietzsche declared that without music, life would be a mistake.
Closer to our own age, Billy Joel described music as an explosive expression of humanity. Its something we are all touched by. No matter what culture youre from, everyone loves music.
The trouble with these declarations of arts universal appeal is that they are made by artists, and they resonate with the people who already like art, or who trust Billy Joel to know an explosive expression of humanity when he sees one. The self-appointed elite speak for us all, and never hear the silence from those who dont share their values.
How many humans feel that without music, life would be a mistake? Not as many as Friedrich, Will and Billy would like to think. A Melody Maker journalist once declared that listening to Bjrk was as essential as breathing, but biological and historical evidence suggests that breathing is of unrivaled importance, followed by eating, drinking and sleeping.
I dont doubt that for some listeners, music delivers profound, transcendent experiences. It does it for me, and probably for you, too.
But music is also tremendously overhyped. Every day, heaps and heaps of superlatives are shoveled onto it by people who, in truth, did not feel what their words tell you they felt. They heard a record/went to a concert and had a pleasant time, whereupon they tell you that their mind exploded into a million iridescent fragments, propelled around the cosmos on waves of dervish ecstasy. Or they declare that they would rather gnaw off their own arm than have to listen to a certain song again. Really? Their own arm? Gnawed off? Music, even more than the visual arts or Literature, seems to give people a license to bullshit.
No journalist would dare to say that if you dont love model trains, T. S. Eliot, jogging or Star Wars, you must be clinically dead. They feel free to say it about your failure to adore their favorite sounds.
This book will not add more hype to the landfill. Lets look at the world as it really works. Music has its place, and for many people that place is small.
Im not referring to the 5 percent, or whatever the number is, who are willing to let scientists study their arm hairs to establish the severity of their musical anhedonia.
No, this is about the ordinary folks who wish the restaurant wouldnt play music while theyre eating, the person who hates the way her flatmate switches the radio on as soon as she wakes up, the person who nods with feigned approval when his pals enthuse about a forthcoming concert that he has not the faintest desire to attend, the tourists who return from an overseas adventure unable to recall anything they heard, the driver who has the car radio tuned to talk shows and the news, the rambler who explores the woods all day, feeling no need for any musical accompaniment to that activity.
Its about the unlucky souls who write in to online communities like Mumsnet and Quora, shyly confessing that music does little or nothing for them, only to be shamed and overwhelmed by their music-worshipping peers who rave like a chorus of Lorenzos.
A lifetime of listening to how people relate to music has taught me that the love of music for its own sake is comparable to the love of cooking, gardening, antique furniture, animals, poetry and so on. Some people have it; a lot dont.
And why should they? Our societys sonic saturation is quite a recent development and may prove to be an abortive detour in human evolution. Our species managed to thrive through millions of years without multinational entertainment corporations, YouTube and Spotify. In the distant past, there was simply a lot less music around. Music had its appointed role in rituals and ceremonies. It was an occasional treat, an occasional obligation, a banquet once in a while; it was not a constant feed. Some people no doubt sang as they worked. Others were content with the rhythm of their carpentry, or walked to the well in silence, hearing only the tread of their feet on the earth and the sloshing of their bucket. Unaccompanied silence was normal.
Capitalism has changed that landscape. What were once luxuries are now considered basics, what was once communal is now atomized, what was once functional is now a superfluous add-on, and what were once deliberate commitments are now barely noticed ephemera supplied through invisible pipelines from everywhere and nowhere. Theres a glut of artistic product. We have the fruits of our civilization coming out of our ears. Its not even a matter of seeking them out anymore, of foraging for the good stuff. Art is in the air, plentiful as oxygen, and we are under pressure to inhale deeply.
Just because theres an excess of art, however, doesnt mean everyone is lovin it.
A few people love music, yes.
Others quite enjoy it in certain moods.
Others can take or leave it.
Others would rather leave it.
Yet everybody wants to be accepted as a member of society. And our society has decided that not caring for music is unacceptable.
How to get around that?
I read this scary statistic from America, Peter Gabriel told Rolling Stone in 1987, just after So had hit pay dirt, that the average album is played 1.2 times. Its an impulse buy, or something to impress a girlfriend, part of the artillery with which you announce yourself to the world.
For someone like Gabriel, an artist to the marrow, that statistic must indeed have been scary. But it is probably true. The majority of people have little use for music purely as an aesthetic proposition. But they do need to bond with their friends, colleagues, neighbors and anyone else who might require impressing.
Almost every product in the capitalist marketplace is advertised in the same wayby telling the purchaser that if they have this thing, they will appear to be a particular sort of person in the eyes of others (and thereby in their own eyes as well). Music is as much a part of this artillery as clothing, gadgets, decor, books, hairstyle and so on.
What happened to Peter Gabriel, when he finally hit the big time in America, was that his album So was selected by the then-dominant culture as an object that sophisticated, up-to-date people should own. So, So was bought by millions of people.
Im confident that if I played each of those millions of people the first thirty seconds of the opening track, Red Rain, the vast majority of them would be stumped as to what album it was from, or even if theyd ever heard it before. They would recognize Sledgehammer because it was programmed for high rotation on the radio and is still played on oldies stations today. This means that even if they havent played their own copy for years (which will almost certainly be the case), they will have heard it more recently at the supermarket or in the car or while having a pee in a restaurant loo.
Excerpted from Listen: On Music, Sound and Us by Michel Faber 2023 by Michel Faber, used with permission from HarperCollins/Hanover Square Press.