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.

The full text of this article can be purchased from Informit.

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...

The full text of this article can be purchased from Informit.