Six months ago, when Taylor Swift released her twangy, emotionally charged album folklore, Danyel watched as her sister “cried to the sad songs and lip synched like she was on stage” to the more upbeat ones. Danyel, however, chose to forego this emotional rollercoaster. “It just didn’t connect with me,” she tells me.
In fairness, it’s not just Taylor Swift who fails to connect with Danyel. As long as she can remember, the 24-year-old has never heard a single piece of music that she’s enjoyed. Despite music’s claim of being the “universal language,” Danyel is among the 5 percent of people who experience “musical anhedonia,” or an inability to derive pleasure from song. “I never understood how my friends in high school would lie in their room or go on long car rides and just listen to music the whole time,” Danyel explains. “I’ve definitely tried finding something I like, but nothing’s ever clicked for me.”
While general anhedonia (i.e., the inability to derive pleasure from anything) is typically associated with depression, having musical anhedonia doesn’t necessarily mean something is wrong. Rather, researchers from the University of Barcelona found that it’s merely the result of which areas of the brain communicate when listening to music.
In their study, the researchers scanned the brains of students while they listened to music. In people who love music, the auditory and reward regions of the brain lit up, showing a strong connection between musical stimuli and emotion. In people like Danyel, however, the two areas of the brain didn’t communicate at all. They register the auditory stimuli, and understand it as music, but it ends there.
Which explains why Danyel describes her sister’s Taylor Swift albums as “just sounding like noise.” “If music is in a movie or on in a waiting room, I’m not going to tear my hair out and freak out,” she says (with the caveat that she can’t stand musicals). “But I’ll probably just ignore it, or put my headphones in and listen to a podcast.” That said, she definitely feels frustrated when she’s forced to listen to music for an extended period of time. “I end up frustrated, stressed or just bummed out, and I’d rather avoid that altogether,” she says.
To that end, navigating life with musical anhedonia can be pretty isolating. “It’s always made me feel different and disconnected from the majority of the population,” 20-year-old Loren Green tells me. “All of my peers, classmates, friends and lovers have always had a passion for music, and I’ve heard countless times, ‘I can’t imagine not having music,’ or ‘I don’t think I’d be alive if it weren’t for music.’ But I’ve never understood that.”
“My inability to have a connection to music has made me quite depressed in the pandemic,” she continues. “Music is an escape to many people — the same way I imagine religion to be.” And though, she adds, there are a few love songs that “speak to me and make me not feel so alone, the difference between me and someone who doesn’t have anhedonia is my near-zero ability to sing along with a song, let alone dance to a song.”
Danyel has also grown wary of telling people about her give-or-take attitude toward music. “People refuse to accept it,” she says. “Every single time I brought it up, it became about ‘well you just haven’t found the right genre yet, let’s try this, or this or this.’ So now I either nod along and pretend to enjoy songs too, or if I control the radio, just say I prefer talk radio or podcasts.”
Though neither has met anyone else like them IRL, both Green and Danyel find comfort in knowing that there are indeed others with musical anhedonia out there (rare as they might be). “I used to feel like I was obliged to figure this out and find music I liked to fit in,” Danyel concludes, “but it feels good to know that I’m not the only human in history to not enjoy music.”