Richie Feathers, Arts Editor
Music is such an accustomed part of everyday life that it’s just assumed to be a universally loved art form. For many, music runs both parallel and congruent to life’s highs and lows, but even casual listeners have a favorite song or two that make them stop and listen. However, according to NPR, a recent music study at the University of Barcelona concluded some unexpected results. While screening participants for an experiment that would use responses to music to measure emotion, psychologists discovered that five percent of their pool of university students couldn’t “feel” the music at all.
This disorder, known as “congenital amusia,” is not a new phenomenon, but it’s one that is rarely discussed. Essentially, people who suffer from amusia are incapable of discerning and processing musical pitch, a necessity for appreciating the components of any song. Although the participants from the study were able to identify the emotions in multiple styles of music, they lacked the ability to hear the difference between actual tones.
Four percent of the population is living with amusia. They report that music sounds to them like a “banging,” a negative description that most of us wouldn’t associate with the same topic. Some people have been suffering with the lifelong disorder–also labeled “tone deafness”–since birth. According to psychologist Isabelle Peretz, congenital amusia is a “deficit in fine-grained pitch discrimination;” amusics have normal hearing and memory skills, just an impaired recognition of songs.
The University of Barcelona study required the participants to bring in a collection of their favorite tunes. However, the five percent in the study with amusia had absolutely no music to name. And when the psychologists observed the music fans getting chills while listening, the others showed no emotion, no response even, to the songs that had been deemed “pleasurable” by other students. Neither their heart rate nor their skin conductance reacted in any way similar to the majority.
To try to further understand this unexpected outlying group, the experimenters gave each participant a psychology exam, anticipating that the five percent with amusia might be people who just don’t care to pay any attention to music. Yet, every student had comparative results, suggesting that this hearing impairment is specific to music and not by choice.
That being said, not everyone who has this disorder is born with it. The other type of amusia is called “acquired amusia” and refers to people who have developed it after suffering brain damage. Some people believe acquired amusia is an effect of damage to the left or right hemispheres of the brain, but a 2009 article from the journal, “Neuropsychologia,” stated that it was more likely an outcome of damage to the frontal lobe (the dopamine system associated with reward) and auditory cortex (the section that processes basic hearing functions).
Unfortunately, there is no way to treat people who suffer from either types of this condition. Although there have been recent trials and improvements to help children with congenital amusia, it seems this disorder is likely permanent. It’s hard not to feel sympathetic for the people who currently make up the four percent of the population with the disorder. While some may never know what they’re missing, the other 96 percent does, and should feel a little luckier because of it.
Josep Marco-Pollares, the author of the study from the University of Barcelona, is planning to continue research on what he calls “specific musical anhedonia.” As NPR overviews, “Maybe if we figure out why a small number of humans have missed out on the thrill of music, it will reveal something about why music matters so much to the rest of us.”