My Brain Doesn’t Enjoy Music. Here Are Five Things I Can’t Stop Listening To.
Musical anhedonics don’t enjoy music the same way as everyone else, but it can make for delightfully weird listening habits.
A Musician, 1867, Albert Joseph Moore.
A few years ago, I discovered the term “musical anhedonia,” identified by a group of researchers at the University of Barcelona in a 2014 study. Musical anhedonics are people who don’t like music. They’re capable of identifying its emotional tone and they don’t find it unpleasant—they could sit through a symphony with polite disinterest—but due to some neurological quirk, their brains don’t process music as enjoyable. Although this sounds bizarre to the music-loving majority, studies estimate that the condition affects about 5% of people.
I haven’t taken a brain scan to confirm it, but I find that the term describes me: I hate concerts, I have one lonely album downloaded on my computer, and in high school, when a boy asked me what music I liked, I demurred that my iPod was broken so I really couldn’t say. Still, people who identify as musical anhedonics can consume a lot of sound. In an essay in Real Life, I speculated that this was because the pleasure of sound isn’t purely aesthetic: music-making is physically enjoyable, and sound can provide a sense of social belonging or serve as an index for memory. Even if you can’t appreciate a well-composed melody, sound can still remind you who you are.
The music I like involves narrative, sampling, and lots and lots of repetition. Generally, I don’t like a song until I have memorized it, and by any rubric, my taste is extremely bad. Nevertheless, here are five things I never get sick of listening to. (It doesn’t get too far beyond five. Seriously.)
1. Conversation in Peebles about accent, dialect and attitudes to language, British Library.
The British Library has an incredible archive of over 90,000 sounds: Queen Elizabeth II on her 21st birthday, wildlife soundscapes, intimate conversations, and, for some reason, people with different English dialects reading the children’s book Mr. Tickle. I particularly love this recording of Scottish Borders residents discussing words that have gone out of use.
2. “Endgame #3/Chess Game 3,” Chess.
The reasons why everyone else hates musicals—lyrics that jam dozens of syllables into a few bars, cringe-inducing earnestness, the lack of compositional complexity—are assets in my book. Chess is a mint example: an ambitious Cold War flop of a musical, written by musical theater legend Tim Rice and the two Bs of ABBA (Benny Andersson and Björn Ulvaeus) in which the integrity of the game of chess triumphs over love, lust, and loyalty, its weird hilarity is only apparent if you listen to it again and again, as if you are torturing yourself. This is the best song.
This recording, an unusually crisp track from the old days of WNYC radio, offers a bizarre window into everyday life in 1945 New York. Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia is accusing a man named Samuel Shillitani and his entire of being a mobster and...getting a telephone installed to his apartment, in a rant that descends into broad accusations of chicanery and corruption. Why was this on the radio? Anyone’s guess!
4. The Idea of North, Glenn Gould.
In the 1960s and ’70s, Canadian pianist Glenn Gould composed The Solitude Trilogy, a series of experimental documentaries for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation and PBS. In The Idea of North, Gould overlays interviews, sometimes with two or three voices speaking at the same time, over a background of ambient environmental noise, like early, experimental ASMR.
5. Doopee Time, The Doopees.
Doopee Time, a “Space age pop concept album” produced in 1995 by Japanese musicians Yann Tomita, Umiko Ohno, and Chica Ogawa, follows a fictional band called The Doopees as they sing about love and tussle cheerfully with unidentified demons. The music is childish, repetitive, and very catchy: the most serious music on this list, it is like nothing else I’ve listened to.