Rosita Boland: I have a confession to make – music does nothing for me

Music passes through my consciousness like water flowing downhill. I can never retain it

‘I could, of course, see how much music meant to my friends. I envied them the joy they so clearly found in it.’  Photograph: iStock

‘I could, of course, see how much music meant to my friends. I envied them the joy they so clearly found in it.’ Photograph: iStock

 

I have a confession to make. Music means nothing to me. I know this sounds very strange. Believe me, I spent a lifetime trying to understand it myself. Yet the fact is, music simply doesn’t play any meaningful part in my life and I have never been able to figure out why.

I noticed it first at school. My contemporaries knew the names of all the bands of the day; the lyrics of their songs. They knew with certainty what they liked and didn’t like. Acquiring music, and the means to play it, were top of their priorities. A Sony Walkman, new on the market and extremely expensive, was what everyone aspired to own back then.

My friends talked fluently and knowledgeably about music and bands in a way that was, and remains, a foreign language to me. They had very strong opinions. They were always making recordings of records and compiling mixed tapes to swap with each other. They pressed some of these on to me. “Home Taping Is Killing Music”, accompanied by the image of a skull, are now the only words that stand out from that time.

I could not repeat to you probably more than one line from the lyrics of any song

The friends who were so anxious to share with me the music they loved were mystified by my subsequent total lack of engagement with it; my inability to be moved or stirred or excited in the way they had been. I did dutifully listen to the tapes they gave me, trying to understand what it was they had heard and why none of it was getting through to me in the same way. I couldn’t. There was no catalyst. I simply preferred listening to the radio; to hearing talking voices. I could understand and get engaged with that.

I could, of course, see how much music meant to my friends. I envied them the joy they so clearly found in it. I wished I could understand how they had so effortlessly incorporated music into their lives. Apart from anything else, I was fully aware I was missing out on a huge part both of popular culture and of centuries of an established classical music culture. And yet, for some reason, I could never find a way into either of these genres.

Concerts, live gigs and music festivals? I’ve been to probably fewer than 10 in my life, and most of those were for work. The only one I went to of my own volition was Glastonbury in 1994, when Björk was headlining. I went, not for the music, but to spend time with friends of mine who were shortly to return to Australia. They went to Paul Weller and Björk and everyone else on their list. I spent most of my time in the Circus Fields and the other non-music places. We all enjoyed ourselves in different ways.

It’s only lately I finally began to wonder: is there something wrong with the way my synapses work?

From time to time over the years, I tried to “educate” myself. I bought CDs of the Greatest Hits of particular bands, hoping that these proven acclaimed songs would somehow get through to me. They didn’t. Nothing happened.

The fact is, music seems to pass through my consciousness like water flowing downhill, and I can never retain any of it. I could probably not repeat to you more than one line from the lyrics of any song. Someone who didn’t know me once asked me what music I listened to, and I replied, “Whatever is on the radio.”

Lately I began to wonder: is there something wrong with the way my synapses work? While I have great difficulty remembering faces, until I see them at least 20 times – and I mean at least 20 times – I can recall and identify the sound of someone’s voice perfectly, even if I’ve only heard it once. Why then, if I’m so attuned to the sound of voices, can some part of my brain not connect with music?

So this week, I did what I should have done years ago, I googled, “Are there people who can’t connect with music”, feeling foolish as I did so.

The first thing that came up was this. “Musical anhedonia is a neurological condition characterised by an inability to derive pleasure from music.” I gasped in recognition. I googled some more. “For those who experience ‘musical anhedonia’, listening to a song is halfway between boring and distracting.”

There was relief in finally knowing what my weird condition is, while also feeling the sadness of knowing it will never change. But I will always have the radio.

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