Saturday, March 25, 2017

Musical Anhedonia

Yesterday I included in my Friday miscellanea a piece from The Atlantic on "musical anhedonia." I've been thinking about it and think it is worth a second look. Go read the whole thing, but here is a sample:
Despite coming from a tremendously musical family, Sheridan is part of the roughly 3 to 5 percent of the world’s population that has an apathy toward music. It’s what’s referred to as specific musical anhedonia—different from general anhedonia, which is the inability to feel any kind of pleasure and which is often associated with depression. In fact, there’s nothing inherently wrong with musical anhedonics; their indifference to music isn’t a source of depression or suffering of any kind, although Sheridan notes, “The only suffering is being mocked by other people, because they don’t understand it. Everybody loves music, right?”
Later on, the article describes someone at the other end of their spectrum: a music-lover:
“I hear music in my mind a lot, and I can get chills from this imagined music,” says Silvia, a psychology professor at the University of Carolina at Greensboro, who experiences chills in response to music several times a day. In fact, it was this response that got Silvia to begin studying chills almost a decade ago.
“Chills are fascinating,” says Silvia, because “there’s a difference between some song you like coming on the radio and emotions from music that are deep.” It’s that feeling of wanting to cry when you hear a particularly moving piece or feeling your heart soar as notes get larger and more grandiose. “It seems to be part of this whole cluster of feelings that people find very hard to have words for,” Silvia says.
 There is something really wrong with this whole approach. Let me cite two hypotheticals to show why: first of all, there are lots of people who really thrive on music. They have music playing in the background nearly all time and thanks to the Sony Walkman (going back a few years) and the iPod and iPhone, they can have it with them all the time. It is like a constant blanket of sonic stimulation. Then there are people who rarely listen to music and a surprising number of professional musicians fall into this category. There are probably lots of other kinds of listeners and non-listeners, but you would have to do a truly objective survey to discover them--something that social scientists seem not to do. Instead, they lay out some crude categories that tend to dominate all the subsequent findings:
As part of the study, 45 students from the University of Barcelona (where most of the study authors are based) were asked to fill out a questionnaire that helped determine their sensitivity to musical reward. Based on their responses, they were divided into groups of three—people who don’t care for music at all, those who have some interest in music, and those who essentially live and breathe music. The researchers then had them listen to music while measuring their brain activity with an fMRI machine.
I don't know about you, but whenever I try and fill out a psychological questionnaire, I find that I cannot answer at least half the questions because I believe the underlying assumptions and ideological stance to be mistaken.

In order to get at the problem here, let me back up a bit and introduce the notion of the "Overton Window." The Overton window (you can read about its origins in the Wikipedia article) is the range of ideas that are deemed acceptable in public discourse. Ideas falling anywhere outside the window are regarded as radical, unacceptable or evil. In political environments where only a few outlets tend to form public opinion the Overton window can be quite narrow. From my own experience, I would adjudge Canada to be one such. I can recall decades of both the Globe and Mail (the dominant newspaper) and the CBC (the dominant broadcaster) going hard at it to diminish public support of Israel and create public support for the Palestinians. Then, of course, the Globe and Mail does a poll of public opinion and discovers that it has shifted away from Israel and towards the Palestinians. No surprise there!

I think that if we dig into the assumptions of this research we will find an Overton window delimiting neurological research into music. The ideas excluded from their Overton window are things like the differing aesthetic quality of music and the subsequent different kinds of engagement with it. For these researchers there is the simple duality of "pleasure from music" and "lack of pleasure from music." One concept completely outside their Overton window is the idea that some people might like some music quite intensely and dislike other music equally intensely. But this is in fact perfectly normal!

There are certain words that always seem to prefix a reveal of an assumption. One of these is "despite" as in the first sentence of the first quote:
Despite coming from a tremendously musical family, Sheridan is part of the roughly 3 to 5 percent of the world’s population that has an apathy toward music.
One assumption underlying this is that the ability to enjoy music is partly genetic! This is interesting because in most social science contexts these days, the base assumption is that humans are a blank slate, not genetically predisposed towards musical talent or intelligence or other abilities. Let's look at another quote, this time from the music-lover:
“Chills are fascinating,” says Silvia, because “there’s a difference between some song you like coming on the radio and emotions from music that are deep.” It’s that feeling of wanting to cry when you hear a particularly moving piece or feeling your heart soar as notes get larger and more grandiose. “It seems to be part of this whole cluster of feelings that people find very hard to have words for,” Silvia says.
This is a bit like things I have said here a number of times: what music does, what music is, is a bit of a mystery and fundamentally difficult to put into words. But I also have said a number of times that the effect music has on us is unlike what we might call "garden-variety" emotions in that they, unlike music, have objects. We love someone, we hate something, we are angry about something, etc. Music does not have specific objects in the world like our regular emotions do. Music creates something else that is partly somatic (we have bodily reactions to rhythm especially), partly mood (music has an intense ability to create atmosphere and mood) and partly something else that I find it hard to find a word for: spiritual? intellectual? There is a lot of music that operates in a realm that is pretty far afield from our everyday lives, so we don't seem to be able to easily describe it. A good example would be a Bach fugue. How would you describe your response to this:


One assumption of the article is that any music-lover would, as a matter of course, experience "chills" when listening to music. I have to confess that while this happened fairly regularly when I was young, it is less common now. And it certainly is no indicator of my interest or engagement in the music. "Chills" are kind of a fusion of somatic and emotional reactions to music that may or may not occur when you listen and really don't have much to do with your engagement. I doubt very much that any serious performer experiences "chills" when they are playing, but they are more engaged than anyone else in the hall:


The researchers talk a lot about the pleasure and joy that people experience from music:
in the brains of hyper-hedonics—people on the other end of the musical spectrum—researchers saw the strongest transfer of information between the auditory and reward parts of the brain. “It shows that the experience that you have for music is linked to this type of neural response pattern—the more you have it, the more interaction there is between those two systems, the more you are likely to feel pleasure to music,” says Robert Zatorre, a cognitive neuroscientist at McGill University in Montreal and one of the authors of the study. “These are people who say life would be unimaginable without music.”
Sure, some music is joyous and pleasurable, but other music is tragic and demanding. One of the fundamental problems with this kind of research is that there is no interest in or ability to distinguish between different kinds of musical experience. They have to categorize very sad music that might move some people to tears as being somehow "pleasurable."

A "neural response pattern" may be something that they can measure, but I really doubt that it tells us anything of any significance. People may have stronger or weaker response patterns, but I doubt we are measuring an aesthetic quality. At the end of the day, the response they are looking at is no different from the response people might have to taking cocaine or heroin. Not much to do with music, really.

Let's listen to a demanding, challenging piece for an envoi. This is the Piano Sonata No. 6 by Sergei Prokofiev:


4 comments:

Anonymous said...

Excellent post. Many good points. I vaguely recall that Chick Corea went through a phase where he lost all interest in music. His taste for it eventually came back.

Nice vid of Glenn Gould singing while accompanying himself on the piano...

OK, just kidding. But I must say that over the years I've come to find his humming insufferable. It's like going to a concert sitting next to someone with the sniffles. There are so many great Bach interpreters these days I just don't think the cult of Gould is aging well. All that talk of "Gould and Bach, a dialogue between geniuses" is utter nonsense: Bach was a genius; Gould was a fine pianist. Let's leave it at that.

Bryan Townsend said...

Thank you Sr. Anonymous. I picked that piece because that performance seems to traverse some rare and strange territory. But, yes, I think I agree about Gould. I was listening to his Goldbergs not long ago and it was not so transcendental as I remembered. As you say, there are some extraordinary pianists these days that are great Bach players.

Will Wilkin said...

Perhaps "pleasurable" is too glib a descriptor for music "tragic and demanding" (like the Shostakovich Sym #8?), but, like a church funeral attended by loved ones, there is a comfort and solidarity that can give strange element of pleasure even in commiseration. Also, I think people with strong opinions about music, as you describe being those who both love some and despise others, are obviously on the "hyper-hedonic" end of the spectrum. We all know the opposite o0f love is not hate but rather apathy.

Bryan Townsend said...

Sometimes I think the difference between a serious music lover and someone who enjoys music is that for the latter music is just a pleasant accompaniment to their lives, while with the former, it is a whole universe of thought and feeling.