The Good Listener: If You Don't Like Music, Do You Have A Soul?
We get a lot of mail at NPR Music, and alongside the tiara we ordered as the grand prize at our upcoming eating contest is a slew of smart questions about how music fits into our lives — and, this week, thoughts on people who simply don't enjoy music.
Dave M. writes via email: "I've run into a couple of people in my life who have claimed they don't like music. At all. I find this impossible to comprehend. I'm certain they weren't joking, but they could have been lying, or maybe just being contrarian. Do you think it's possible for a human being to truly not enjoy music? If so, can those people possess a soul?"
I, too, have encountered people who've straight-up told me they don't like music — and, as you do in the case of folks you've met, I believe them. As much as people think of music as a universal language that transcends all cultural and communication-based barriers, music is a matter of taste, and taste is subjective and slippery.
The spectrum of human appreciation almost invariably includes an option marked "none of the above," whether we're talking about music, sex, religion, or just about any pursuit that doesn't cause us to literally drop dead for lack of it. "None of the above" can be as deeply felt and seriously considered as any other reaction to art — be it an individual work or art writ large. To dismiss "none of the above" as mere contrarianism or misanthropy or defiance is, I think, at least a minor failure of empathy. I've written this before, probably more than once, but I generally choose to believe that people come by their tastes honestly, whether or not those tastes make sense to others.
As for any given human being's ability to possess a soul, we'll steer clear of the theological: You're asking if people who don't like music are capable of properly appreciating and plugging into the human experience, right? Setting aside the fact that deafness doesn't preclude well-roundedness, think about how many people you know who view their passions as central to their identity. You'll find folks who can't comprehend how others wouldn't appreciate visual art, or fine wine, or cars, or origami, or golf — and if you're the pitiable character who doesn't, then they assume you must envy their enjoyment.
Maybe you do envy it, maybe you don't, but I'll bet you wouldn't view your own indifference as an embarrassment or spiritual defect. With its endlessly varied forms and rhythms, music is one of the world's most accessible, important and far-reaching means of human expression. But I like the idea that every love in our life is something or someone we choose; that every process of discovery, musical and personal, begins when we face a choice, examine our options closely, and say yes.