Australasian Science: Australia's authority on science since 1938

The Man that Hath No Music in Himself

By Tim Hannan

A study of people who don’t respond to music finds differences in the brain’s reward system.

Enjoyed by humans since prehistoric times, music has been variously described as the food of love, a shorthand for emotion, and the universal language of humankind. For some, those seemingly rare individuals who do not express an enthusiasm for music are viewed with deep suspicion, like those who don’t eat chocolate, who are unmoved by Shakespearean drama, or who fail to express delight over an Ashes victory.

Yet recently the assumption that the enjoyment of music is a near-universal human trait has been questioned, with evidence that some people simply don’t derive pleasure from music, and that this does not reflect or result from a general lack of pleasure in life’s activities.

Within the brain, music activates a range of auditory perceptual systems, including the pitch centre in the temporal lobe, which enables the relative ordering of tones along a continuum. It is evident that these systems evolved to process stimuli of biological significance: the ability to discriminate tones in human speech provides information about the gender, size and emotional state of the speaker, and differentiates meaning of utterances in some languages.

Music is assumed to be a fortuitous by-product of this evolutionary development, and is more fully processed in the brain’s right hemisphere, which is more associated with the representation of emotions than the left hemisphere.

It has been theorised that aesthetic responses to music may derive from the similarity of musical tones to tonal characteristics of human speech associated with different emotional states. If so, it would be hypothesised that the pleasure one finds in music would be related to skills in and enjoyment of social intercourse. Conversely, a lack of musical appreciation would predict deficiencies in social engagement: in Shakespeare’s words, for the man that hath no music in himself, “the motions of his spirit are dull as night and his affections dark as Erebus: Let no such man be trusted”.

The inability to enjoy music has been investigated by a team of Spanish researchers, who started with the assumption that the condition may result from deficits in music perception – termed amusia – or a more general inability to derive pleasure from everyday activities – formally labelled anhedonia. Their first studies used a questionnaire to assess participants’ enjoyment of music while evaluating other aspects of their health and happiness. The results indicated that a subset of people reported no interest or pleasure in music despite possessing good health and showing no indication of depressed mood.

In Current Biology the research team reported on their investigation of the hypothesis that those who do not enjoy music may exhibit broader abnormalities of the systems of the brain involved in reward, motivation and arousal. They examined three groups of participants with high, average and low pleasure ratings in response to music. All participants demonstrated intact music perception (no amusia) and were matched for overall sensitivity to other types of rewards.

They undertook a monetary incentive delay task, which required them to respond quickly to targets in order to earn or avoid losing real money. Physiological indications of emotional response were also assessed through measures of skin conductance and heart rate.

The results confirmed that some otherwise healthy and happy people with normal music perception report that they do not enjoy music and show no autonomic responses to its presentation. This occurs in the presence of a normal behavioural and physiological response to monetary rewards, which demonstrates that a lack of enjoyment of music is not associated with general dysfunction in the brain’s reward network.

This demonstration of the existence of a domain-specific anhedonia – in this case, specific musical anhedonia – suggests that there are individual differences in access to the brain’s reward system. This may lead to a better understanding of the mechanics of reward, arousal and motivation, with implications for disorders such as depression, anxiety and addictions. The study also demonstrates that while music may be the universal language, it doesn’t speak to everyone.

Tim Hannan is an Associate Professor of Clinical Psychology at Charles Sturt University, and the President of the Australian Psychological Society.