A defense of amusicality

I have a dirty little secret.

No, it isn’t a secret, exactly. Plenty of people know about it. They find out when I am comfortable enough to tell them, or when someone who already knows blurts it out to someone I’ve just met. They do it playfully – I don’t have particularly malicious friends, after all. But every time, it puts me in the uncomfortable position of downplaying the secret, qualifying it, stammering as if it isn’t entirely true. People don’t get it. When they find out, they tilt their heads – they furrow their brows and laugh, or worse – they pity me, as the crux of the issue is my own naivete.

I do not like music. Trust me, I have tried. I have explored; I have forced myself to sit through countless songs that people beg me to give a chance. It doesn’t grab me. It doesn’t enhance my mood, or elevate my mental state. I find it tiresome. I find it annoying.

Here come the qualifications. I am used to defending myself, because letting someone know that you aren’t a music person inevitably leads to a barrage that ranges from quizzical to antagonistic. There are, I admit, certain songs that I like. They are mostly Broadway showtunes or patriotic anthems of now-defunct states, with a few catchy pieces of pop thrown in. But I don’t use them as musical objects, per se – I use them as distraction. I will shuffle songs on iTunes while getting dressed, for example. Or I will play my Top 25 when walking to the Metro. But apart from these scenarios, I lead a relatively amusical life.

I always knew that people thought this factoid about me was a bit weird, but I never realized it was a social impediment until my freshman year of college. I’d habitually find myself at those crammed red Solo cup-type house parties, separated from my roommates within the first five minutes. I’d strike up a conversation with a guy. After I’d divulged the very basics about my biography (I’m Natalie, I’m a freshman, I’m a history major,) I’d inevitably field the music question. And you know what? The college party music chat is the worst.

I can picture dozens of wrong-for-me dudes from my life’s smear of parties – each very different, but maddeningly unified in their desire to evaluate some mystical sector of my personality based on my auditory system. It is as if the spiritual content of music is assumed, and the question is actually one about values, sensibilities and universal outlook. It is a question ripe with implication, after all. It goes far beyond asking what you like, and instead compels you to divulge who you are, what you believe, and what invigorates you. Musical taste is deeply political, and being amusical is seen as akin not merely to not voting, but to embracing complete ignorance of how electing an official even works. Even worse, though, is that as an attendee of college parties, I lacked the confidence in myself to admit I wasn’t much of a music fan – and I answered the question. And what followed was sure to constitute an intellectual stretch so overdone that my rhetorical tendons would ache for days. Those heady, pseudo-intellectual instances of conversational masturbation stand as some of the more taxing and contrived social experiences of my entire existence. The situation didn’t improve much when I did declare I wasn’t so musical – that invited them to assert I just hadn’t heard the right music, or worse – campaign for the gig of becoming my musical guide. Be held captive by a stranger’s imposition of his own taste? I’d rather slit my wrists with the shards of a cracked vinyl LP.

The thing is, my brain doesn’t work that way. I cannot muster the proper focus required to have a rewarding musical experience. I get antsy and restless – my eyes dart, and my thoughts get louder than whatever I’m hearing. Music requires too little of my participation – you need to experience it too passively. I get bored. I lack whatever faculty it is that allows music lovers to transcribe sound into emotional content. I love words, but I cannot embrace musical lyrics – you need to listen too hard, and I never even understand what they’re saying. It boggles my mind that so many people can engage with music as a primary activity – I envy whatever is in them that makes lying on a bed and listening to an album an enjoyable thing to do. It is as if everyone else is in on something I’m not. I know how important music is to so many people. I respect their relationship with it, but I’ll never have one.

So, please – party guests, harmless flirters, get-to-knowers and brain-pickers of the world, enjoy the music that you do. Hell, walk away from me and cease further communication with me if my inability to have a musically-induced emotion is a deal-breaker. But don’t flog me with the discursive crop of your impressions of indie punk. And don’t try to cure me with a patronizing dose of jazz education, as if my real issue is that I haven’t met someone like you to fix me all up and send me running toward the nearest used record store. I’m not in need of repair. I just see music very literally. For some of us, it’s really just noise.


  1. That's not entirely true. I happen to know that you enjoy listening to Billy Joel.

  2. I don't think I'll ever understand how someone can't be hopelessly in love with music, of some sort or another. But I seem to remember that you confessed to me loving the trashiest pop music out there -- which is a musical love of sorts, even if it's perverse. You have plenty of interests in other things though, so it's not like we don't have anything to talk about.

  3. I find this post to be interesting in that it provides a neurochemical analysis for people with highly developed senses of music. This passage seems to relate to your predilection, or lack thereof :)


    "The whole study gives us a nice biological basis for our physical responses to music, but it also raises questions. WHY have be evolved such that music effects us this way? What is the function? Is it just enhancement of emotion? If so, how does that work? Is it familiarity with the music, knowing that a part you like is coming up? Does it have anything to do with language and the tones which we utilize in our voices for things like language? "