Vox Populi

People who feel no pleasure in music itself may have sharper sense of its social potential

Dorothy Ireland was born in 1949 and grew up in Romsey, a small town surrounded by dense green hills and farmland. The town lies just east of the New Forest, a mosaic of oaks and beech, wet heath, medieval pasture, and low, dry grassland, where beasts of chase — rabbits, boars and deer — have thrived for centuries. Dorothy explored this land on long walks with her grandmother, who shared her encyclopedic knowledge of the region’s ecology with her young granddaughter. She would point out badgers, foxes, sika deer, four-leaf clovers. They cut and carried home wildflowers to be pressed. By the age of seven, Dorothy could confidently skin a rabbit, and re-taught the skill to her curious peers.

Dorothy Ireland is now a professional wildlife recordist: The mental acquisitiveness she developed on those long walks led to a career capturing intricate sonic landscapes in the New Forest. In an installment of the British Library’s 2015 series Interviews with Wildlife Sound Recordists, she describes a job requiring precision and a good-humored sense of one’s limits — the entropy of wildlife can ruin one recording and capture a miracle on the next. In the interview, Dorothy plays a favorite recording and talks over the tape, explaining that she’s in France and the birds you hear are nightingales. The birdsong swells and subsides, and suddenly an ewe bleats like a foghorn. There’s a tangle of clashing, brassy notes: “That’s the bells, around the sheep’s necks.”

Musical anhedonics seek out sounds for what they signify: culturally shared narratives and new entry-points for relation

I found this hour-and-a-half long interview, one of 50,000 recordings in the British Library’s online archive, when I was looking for alternatives to music. As I listen, I think of skills my own grandmother taught me; I play back the ewe bleating over the nightingales twice, trying to differentiate each layer of sound. I imagine how I would be different if I had Dorothy’s job.

In 2013, researchers at the University of Barcelona discovered a neurological condition they named specific musical anhedonia, estimated to affect five percent of the population. People with musical anhedonia do not enjoy listening to music. They are not generally anhedonic — that is, they haven’t lost pleasure in other things like food, exercise or art — nor are they tone-deaf. People with the condition can recognize the affect of a piece of music, identifying when a song is meant to feel happy, frenetic, or menacing. But the emotions don’t land; the anhedonic listener doesn’t feel particularly calm, ecstatic, or scared.

The last time I was sick, I could imagine with vivid detail the food I liked to eat for breakfast: oatmeal with fresh, fat blackberries and green pumpkin seeds. But the motivation to eat was gone, like a cut circuit, and my multi-sensory idea of food was disconnected from any desire to consume it. Musical anhedonia feels a little like this. Although I can appreciate the technical skill of a musician, the song itself doesn’t incite a feeling of interest. When the chorus swells, my heart doesn’t beat faster and I don’t feel chills; my attention wanders, and soon the sound becomes distracting.

Music is processed by the auditory cortex, a region of the brain that parses sound waves into phonemes, pitches, and rhythms. Once the mind categorizes a certain sound as music, the ventral striatum, the brain’s pleasure center, becomes active and releases dopamine, a chemical reward that incentivizes repeating an action to trigger a new rush of euphoria. The ventral striatum rewards actions that further survival — eating, sprinting from danger, picking dried scabs off skin — but it also reinforces aesthetic pleasure. For people with musical anhedonia, the pathway between the auditory cortex and the ventral striatum is weakened. The brain correctly hears and qualifies music, but the message doesn’t translate to the pleasure center — there is a step missing that makes music technically comprehensible, but not enjoyable.

In a 2016 study on music enjoyment, participants were split into three groups — music hyperhedonics, hedonics, and anhedonics — and asked to evaluate snippets of music while hooked up to an fMRI machine. Lying supine inside the machine’s smooth white shell, anhedonics took in Vivaldi’s “Spring,” Beethoven’s “Für Elise,” and Pachelbel’s “Canon in D,” punching buttons numbered from one to four to rate their enjoyment. Next, the researchers cued up a game in which the respondent won or lost actual money that they could take home when they left the lab. Brain scans showed little activity in the ventral striatum during the music samples, but normal levels of pleasure during the gambling test. Beethoven didn’t do anything for the musical anhedonics, but they enjoyed winning money just as much as everyone else.

Noelia Martínez-Molina, a researcher in cognitive psychology at the University of Barcelona, explains that a crucial part of the brain’s ability to enjoy music involves its predictive ability: a listener mentally models how a song’s notes and rhythms will progress, and, if the music’s resolution improves on the projection, there is a rush of pleasure. This positive prediction error is the pleasure of being wrong — taken by surprise by an innovative bit of composition — but it doesn’t involve memory or social context. Musical anhedonics don’t take pleasure from the brain’s predictive modeling of music, but instead establish other cognitive pathways to make sound enjoyable.

Molly, a mathematician from Michigan, has musical anhedonia, but the incredulous responses she often receives have taught her to avoid bringing it up. She recognizes that music figures so centrally in the worldviews of her music-loving friends that her indifference is somewhat incomprehensible; people tell her she just hasn’t found the right albums yet. I asked her to describe what it feels like to listen to music, and she told me, “I tend to know the song like someone might know a fact about a person, but not know the person.” Although she doesn’t react emotionally to music itself, Molly has created other pathways to  make meaning through sound. When she’s studying or working, she listens to TV show or movies in the background, especially the Harry Potter and Marvel films. She plays her favorites dozens of times, like a cherished record; she says that stories do for her what music does for others. Listening repetitively puts narrative to a new use: stories take on a cyclical quality, and the pleasure of listening comes from recognizing a familiar pattern rather than the linear build of conflict, climax, and resolution.

They could seek out white noise, or ASMR recordings of cellophane rustling. But musical anhedonia produces a strong desire to hear the human voice

Molly also sings and plays the ukulele, skills she enjoys despite her lack of direct enjoyment in the music she produces. She describes playing music in intersubjective terms: “I love that I can bring a ukulele to a lake with friends, around a bonfire with some beers, make up random songs and laugh … I don’t get much from music, but I can give a lot to others with it, and I think that’s beautiful.” Although music in itself is not rewarding, its social context produces a sense of empathy and belonging.

Caton McCarty, 20 years old, is a private in U.S. Army. Before enlisting, he lived in a small Alaskan town of 50 people, accessible only by plane. Music doesn’t do anything for him; instead, he listens to podcasts and stand-up comedy (his favorites are Jim Gaffigan and Brian Regan). He sometimes puts on white noise to go to sleep, and when I asked him if he finds this type of sound “boring,” he agreed that it is. When he runs in formation with his fellow privates, Caton sings Army cadences, simple songs that are half-sung, half-shouted in unison to keep a group of soldiers moving. He says cadences can be fun, but he mostly enjoys them because he gets to shout at the top of his lungs. “It does nothing for me outside of that, and really would prefer to not sing them at all … I feel it’s more from screaming with 100 other privates rather than the actual rhythm of the cadence.”

People with anhedonia are not passively indifferent to music; instead, they invent their own listening patterns, circumventing the aesthetics of music itself to make sound pleasurable through its social, indexical and physical qualities. Molly re-listens to films because they evoke a familiar narrative and enjoys the sociality of playing instruments with friends; Caton can enjoy the embodied experience of singing, especially with his fellow privates.

Like Molly and Caton, I don’t seek out music. But I listen compulsively to the British Library’s sound archive, the site where I found Dorothy Ireland’s interview, along with others: Irish union organizers, a young artist couple in London, a mother and her daughters frankly discussing death. It’s the best source I’ve found for mundane conversations recorded on good microphones, where the interlocutors are not representing anyone other than themselves. I listen to these recordings indexically, to access an experience outside of my own.

And I love Sacred Harp, an Appalachian singing tradition popular across New England college towns for its fire-and-brimstone lyrics and complex minor key harmonies. Here’s how it works: The singers are arranged in a square, altos across from tenors, sopranos across from baritones. When it’s your turn to lead, you walk to the center of the square and call out a song. You wait as the singers ringed around you scan the song’s simplified notation. Then, when you drop your hand to start the first beat, everyone around you begins to sing. You’re at the eye of the storm, and the particularity of individual voices are lost in thick, harsh waves of polyphonic sound.

In his essay “Music—Immateriality—Value,” Diedrich Diederichsen argues that music is fundamentally utopian because it creates a synthesis of the individual singer and the commons. He describes what happens when he picks up and plays an instrument: “I myself, using my talents and abilities … gave expression to something; that is, I lent inner states, which are also exclusively mine, and yet whose form is familiar to all other human beings from their own internal, subjective states, a form that was understandable to others.”

Diederichsen says that this encounter has utopian power because music is without “value” in a Marxian sense — it is not serving as a commodity. Unlike other aesthetic products, making music doesn’t necessarily require material resources. Music is temporally fleeting, and can be generated without structure or ideology. Though music production can be reified, capitalized and culturally regulated, the ability to make music itself always slips away from these constraints: In its most stripped-down form, music is always free to make, and it is always an intersubjective project. People playing music can synthesize their inner worlds with the worlds of others, and in doing so, they create an expression that is proprietary to neither.

The listening patterns of people with musical anhedonia function similarly. Without the aesthetic pleasure of music, sound relies on its indexical content, sociality and physicality. So musical anhedonics seek out sounds for what they signify: culturally shared narratives and new entry-points for relation; radio stories, oral histories, films, music-making with others. Listening this way synthesizes the individual and the commons, reinscribing one’s place in the world through encounters with other subjects, both real and fictional. This is why, despite their indifference to music, anhedonics display a special acquisitiveness toward sounds that teach them something about other people. They could seek out white noise, or birdsong, the ambient clamor of city streets, ASMR recordings of cellophane rustling on a microphone. But they don’t seem to; instead, musical anhedonia produces a strong desire to hear the human voice.

In 1967, pianist Glenn Gould created “The Idea of North,” a radio documentary structured like a symphony, in which five interview subjects tell stories of the Canadian arctic over the rush of wind and the clamor of moving trains. The voices rise, overlap, and fade; Gould draws them out like a conductor cues sections of his orchestra, building up a rich sonic portrait from their narratives. Voices are often superimposed and speak at the same time, a technique he termed “contrapuntal radio.” Individual words become unintelligible, but that’s beside the point — Gould’s layering treats the voices as something more than conveyors of information; they are raw sonic material. This way of composing makes sense to me. As the voices bleed together, they create a new form, a many-voiced synthesis of the subjects it contains.

Erin Schwartz is a writer based in New York.