He suffers from amusia and can’t tell the difference between the national anthem and Beethoven’s Fifth
My relegation to the back of the music room early on in my schooling was what first made me suspect that there was something people took for granted that was eluding me. And it wasn’t the fact that all my compatriots in second standard at a missionary school in Jabalpur were lustily singing O Susana—I came from Alabama/With my banjo on my knee,/I’m goin to Louisiana/My true love for to see, without worrying about the music teacher’s strange pronunciation of what I was sure was Ludhiana.
Over the next few years, my puzzlement only grew. I could sense rhythm and beat, but there seemed to be an overall pattern people were responding to that I just didn’t get. Reading books didn’t help. There was always some child whistling tunelessly who would, in the course of the narrative, suddenly conjure up a tune. I kept hoping something similar would happen to me.
Several decades later, I still whistle tunelessly, my quandary the same as ever—what the hell is this thing called a tune?
I learnt my affliction is called tone deafness. The technical term though is Amusia. It includes forms of music deafness that go beyond tone deafness. Apparently, some people can distinguish tones, but have no sense of rhythm. Most famously, Che Guevara is said to have danced a mambo when the orchestra was playing a tango. I, of course, don’t find that amusing. Mambo or tango, it’s all much the same to me.
In my case, I first thought tone deafness was a misnomer. I don’t seem to have problems with tones in spoken language—otherwise, much in Punjabi would have eluded me. It turns out tone deafness is the inability to differentiate between one musical pitch and another even when a person can follow changes of intonation in language.
Last year, researchers in Montreal found that tone deaf or amusic individuals have more grey matter in regions of the brain related to processing musical pitch, namely the right interior frontal gyrus and the right auditory cortex, as compared to those who are musically intact.
I had always figured that this was the case—it takes more grey matter to be immune to music. And I am not being facetious. I am immune. Without words to go with a piece of music, I can’t tell the difference between the national anthem and Beethoven’s Fifth. The closest analogy would be colour blindness, and I do not mean people who confuse one colour with another. There are some people who see the world entirely in blacks, whites and greys; they do not sense colours. Similarly, I don’t sense tunes.
I’ve found that people are either bewildered or amused by this claim. They tend to think that something vital is missing from my life. But really, a pleasure I do not know is a pleasure I cannot miss. To me, much of music is an aimless din.
In fact, my indifference to music has afforded me a vantage point that those immersed in it can never appreciate. Think of Antakshri on a school outing, whether a picnic or an extended trip to the mountains. At such times, I would drift away, unable to share a bonding generated by no common interest but the ability to utter strange sounds in unison.
Looking on, I came to realise that communities draw upon this very power of music. After all, where would nationalism be without a national anthem? For me, on the other hand, the national anthem is a source of much woe, as I struggle to understand why a certain kind of noise requires me to stand, while others don’t. The same sense of pointlessness has also dogged me on visits to religious places, forced as I am to sit through kirtans or bhajans.
I have since wondered how much of my aversion to group identities has to do with my disdain for music. But such disdain has its limits—knowledge that came to me via the dance floor. Again, dance for me is a truly perplexing act— people contorting themselves in response to a pattern I cannot perceive. But the logic of this act is easier to glean: men at ease with such contortions seemed to get laid far more often.
I could go on. An anthropologist among aliens caught up in bizarre rituals. Copulation and community, I tell anyone who is interested, explain the prevalence of music among humans. But people who are held in the thrall of music feel demeaned by any explanation. This is reductionism, I am told, as if the pleasure that a painting affords is sufficient explanation for colour vision.
In the course of any such discussion—and I find myself discussing music more often than I like—one question always arises: “Surely, there must be some music you do like.” Well actually, no. I do have a gradation, though, ranging from active hatred to indifference. This condition has been rather aptly described by Nabokov, who seemed to be similarly afflicted: “Music, I regret to say, affects me merely as an arbitrary succession of more or less irritating sounds.’’ For me, right at the bottom, the most irritating, beyond the unbearable noise of rock and rap is opera.
The only composer I could ever tolerate was John Cage, whose 4’33’’ is a masterpiece of silence interspersed with the sounds the audience hears or makes in that period of time. In the summer of 1992, as a graduate student, I had the chance to see Cage perform in New York. Our company, beer bottles in hand, was engaged in animated conversation when 4’33’’ commenced. Suddenly, we felt the judging eyes of a few music lovers, who I am certain were passionate about opera, as they turned to shush us. Nothing could have been more of an outrage to the genius of Cage. A few weeks later, he was dead. I believe he was silenced.
Thankfully, opera has never gained currency in this country. But there is much out there that has, a problem exacerbated by technology. I won’t even mention the tape recorder or the CD player—they are of no use to me—but consider the mobile phone.
All I want is the ability to make and receive calls. I do not want to download tunes, I do not need a ringtone and I damn well will not have a song playing for those who call me up. But what do I do with all the ringtones that surround me?
Or, consider something else that the musically inclined never seem to realise. Advertising would not work if a majority of humans reacted as I do. Ads don’t stick in my head, jingles don’t help define an emotional connect to impersonal white goods. From my own experience, I am reasonably certain that if you take away music, consumerism would collapse. Certainly, though, television would be far more watchable.
Music then, has humanity in its thrall because it afflicts most people in a way that they fail to understand, it sustains sex and society, and it drives capitalism.
From where I stand, it is a mixed blessing, and I can certainly make a good case for why we would be better off without music. As for those who insist on claiming that a life without music is not a life worth living, I just wish they’d turn down their ringtones.
Hartosh Singh Bal turned from the difficulty of doing mathematics to the ease of writing on politics. Unlike mathematics all this requires is being less wrong than most others who dwell on the subject.