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Music may be the food of love but for some it's a complete turn-off

<i>Illustration: Cathy Wilcox</i>

Illustration: Cathy Wilcox

American poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow once remarked that music is the universal language of mankind. But new research suggests music doesn't speak to us all.

Psychologists have now discovered that a small number of people experience no pleasure from listening to tunes, be it the dulcet tones of Barry Manilow or Beethoven's broody Symphony Number 9.

Sufferers of the condition, known as musical anhedonia, can still enjoy other activities such as exercise, hobbies, sex or socialising - they just don't like listening to music.

While the musical malady is hardly debilitating, research into the condition gives scientists interesting insights into how the human brain responds to rewards, and how that process can differ among individuals.

''The identification of these individuals could be very important to understanding the neural basis of music, that is, to understand how a set of notes [is] translated into emotions,'' Josep Marco-Pallares, the research leader from the University of Barcelona in Spain said.

Dr Marco-Pallares noticed in previous research that some people had low sensitivity to music but responded positively to other types of rewarding behaviour or activities.

To investigate further, the psychologist had 30 healthy people rate the degree of pleasure they experienced as they listened to several song excerpts.

Listening to music has been shown to engage the brain's reward system and release the feel good neurotransmitter dopamine.

To measure this arousal, investigators monitored participant's physical responses via their heart rate and sweating as they completed the tasks.

The group then played a game where they could win or lose money, an exercise which also excites the brain's reward system.

While all participants recorded normal responses to the money reward - an increase in heart rate and sweating - those people who reported low sensitivity to music presented no physical arousal to listening to music.

''The idea that people can be sensitive to one type of reward and not to another suggests that there might be different ways to access the reward system and that, for each person, some ways might be more effective than others, said Dr Marco-Pallares, whose findings were published in the journal Current Biology.

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