You’ve probably had at least one deep emotional reaction to music, whether it’s getting moved to tears by a mournful ballad issuing from a barroom jukebox, or whether you felt a chill run up your spine at the climax of an aria. But there are people in this world who feel no stir from the notes of a melody – and now, one study finds that they seem to have a very particular condition called specific musical anhedonia.
A team of scientists led by University of Barcelona psychologist Josep Marco-Pallares first ran across a subset of people unmoved by music in a previous study looking at musical reward. Unexpectedly, many of them were perfectly healthy. Usually, no interest in stimuli like music is a sign of deep depression or unhappiness. But not for these people. The researchers wanted to investigate further.
"The identification of these individuals could be very important to understanding the neural basis of music—that is, to understand how a set of notes [is] translated into emotions," Marco-Pallares said in a statement.
For their latest research, published in the journal Current Biology on Thursday, Marco-Pallares and colleagues looked at three groups of 10 people. Each group contained people that previously scored high on a love of music, average music-lovers, and people with little to no response to melodies.
The scientists were investigating two distinct possibilities for explaining musical anhedonia: Perhaps those people unmoved by music just generally have no reaction to stimulating things in general – there could be something inherently different or compromised about the reward pathways in their brains. This has been the traditional view of anhedonia – a universal condition of being numb to the rewards of everything from music to sex, food and money.
Alternatively, perhaps some people just really just don’t care for music. To test this, they had participants perform a music-related task where they listened to songs and recorded their degree of resulting pleasure. In a second task, study participants had to respond quickly to a target to win a small amount of money, or to not lose money.
“Importantly, what our ﬁndings reveal is not a particular preference for one class of stimuli over another (one person may enjoy opera, while another may ﬁnd it boring), but an inability to derive pleasure from an entire domain, music, which the vast majority of human populations do ﬁnd pleasurable,” the authors wrote. “Such domain-speciﬁc anhedonias may also exist in other forms. Studying this particular and rather encapsulated aspect of anhedonia may help shed light more generally on why the link between perception and pleasure can sometimes be broken.”
Future examinations of people with musical anhedonia might reveal interesting brain characteristics. While reward pathways in nonmusic appreciators might be shipshape for other kinds of stimuli, there could be altered interactions between the reward network and music-processing regions of the brain.
"The idea that people can be sensitive to one type of reward and not to another suggests that there might be different ways to access the reward system and that, for each person, some ways might be more effective than others," Marco-Pallarés said.
Mas-Herrero et al. “Dissociation between Musical and Monetary Reward Responses in Specific Musical Anhedonia.” Current Biology 6 March 2014.
The researchers also have an online questionnaire that you can fill out to see how your music habits stack up. And, in the interests of ferreting out any musical anhedonists out there, please consider voting in our very important poll: