Neuroscience Behind Why Some People Don’t Like Music

Researchers at the University of Barcelona recently published a new study that reveals certain people are physically unable to enjoy music.

The study identified a new psychological phenomenon termed “Specific Musical Anhedonia,” which refers to the reduced ability to experience pleasure from music, specifically due to some odd wiring in the reward centers of the brain. You read that correctly; this is not about people who are tone deaf, hearing impaired, or those who have dislikes in terms of musical genres. Rather, this is an actual psychological phenomenon that shows a physical inability to enjoy music.

Participants in this experiment were asked to rate their reaction to music on a scale from “very sensitive” to “not sensitive.” They were also asked to bring in their favorite music that produces the most vivid emotional response in them. Participants listened to this music while researchers monitored their vitals. Listeners who claimed to be unresponsive to music sat bored. They did not shiver at crystal clear high notes or have their heart rate quicken with crescendos.

Music is ranked among the highest sources of pleasure, and its important role in society and culture has led to the assumption that the ability of music to induce pleasure is universal. However, this assumption has never been empirically tested. In the present report, the researchers identified a group of healthy individuals without depression or generalized anhedonia who showed reduced behavioural pleasure ratings and no autonomic responses to pleasurable music, despite having normal musical perception capacities. These persons showed preserved behavioural and physiological responses to monetary reward, indicating that the low sensitivity to music was not due to a global hypofunction of the reward network. These results point to the existence of specific musical anhedonia and suggest that there may be individual differences in access to the reward system.

The researchers surveyed around 500 students at the University of Barcelona about their music habits and response to music  — for example, did they often have music playing and did they like to share music with their friends?

Groups of students who scored high, average, and low on the questionnaire were tested in the lab for their body’s response to music — changes in heart rate and skin conductance, which indicate emotional or nervous system arousal.

While those who scored average or high on the questionnaire had a strong physiological response to the music, those who scored low “more or less flatlined,” confirming that they did not derive pleasure from music.

Then they were tested in another experiment – a slot-machine-like gambling video game in which they would sometimes receive a big payout.

“People who didn’t respond to music nonetheless showed a perfectly normal response to the monetary reward,” Robert Zatorre, co-author of the study, said.

This is interesting because researchers had previously thought the brain’s reward centre was an all-or-none system that was functioning normally, hyperactive, or underactive as a whole.

The new research suggests that the brain’s reward centre may react differently to different kinds of stimuli. That in turn has implications for the way researchers approach problems like drug addiction or eating disorders.

So next time someone tells you they do not enjoy music, do not be too quick to judge. These individuals may have this real brain condition that affects approximately 2% of the population, and many try to hide it. This condition has just been recognized and described by science, and many studies will further investigate.

The paper was published in the journal Current Biology.

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