Grant's Congenital Amusia

KansasFreestater

1st Lieutenant
When Ulysses Grant was asked what kind of music he liked, he famously replied, "I know only two tunes. One of them is ‘Yankee Doodle’—and the other isn’t.”

It's a great quote. But it makes Grant sound like a bit of a curmudgeon, doesn't it? In reality, Grant suffered from a condition that didn't even have a name during his lifetime: congenital amusia. (The term "amusia" was coined by a doctor in 1888, three years after Grant's death.)

People with amusia fail to recognize familiar tunes, cannot tell one tune from another (unless the tunes have lyrics) and often complain that music sounds like noise.​

People who are "tone-deaf" have been around for ages, but little was known about the disorder until quite recently. What makes a person amusic is the inability of his or her brain to process music. Advances in neuroscience and especially in brain-imaging technology in the last 20 years have allowed researchers to start looking at what is actually going on in the brains of people with amusia.

Screen-Shot-2015-05-03-at-21.22.18.png

The connections depicted in green are believed by some researchers to be defective in people with amusia.

Some people become amusic after injury to the brain, such as a stroke. But people such as Grant who are amusic from birth -- who suffer from congenital amusia -- are thought to make up about 4% of the population. Of these, an even smaller number -- maybe one percent of the population -- not only can't make any sense of music, but actively dislike it. A true amusic may even find listening to music to be torturous. Grant apparently was in this category.

Other famous amusics include Charles Darwin, Sigmund Freud, Theodore Roosevelt, Che Guevara and Vladimir Nabokov. Oliver Sacks, in his wonderful book Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain, which contains an entire chapter on amusia, quotes Nabokov from his autobiography:

Music, I regret to say, affects me merely as a succession of more or less irritating sounds. . . . The concert piano and all wind instruments bore me in small doses and flay me in larger ones.
A sentiment with which Ulysses Grant probably would have concurred! Which makes the following story all the more touching:

[Grant had] an almost pathological aversion to musical sounds. He never went to concerts, refused to dance and had a particular (and ironic) hatred for military bands....

Nevertheless, Grant was sensitive to how the majority responds to music, even as he could not comprehend their enjoyment. After graduating from West Point, he was assigned to duty with the Fourth U. S. Infantry. In those days, regimental bands were paid partly by the government and partly by regimental funds, which were set aside for luxuries such as books, magazines and music. Grant accumulated money for the fund by ordering the Infantry’s daily rations in flour instead of bread (at a significant savings), renting a bakery, hiring bakers and selling fresh bread through a contract he arranged with the army’s chief commissary. Much of the extra income went to secure a bandleader and competent players, whose music boosted the soldiers’ morale (and punished Grant’s ears).

Grant’s neurological wiring prevented him from being a music lover. In fact, it made him a music hater. He did not process music as music, and could not feel it as most of us do. Yet he was perceptive enough to observe the musical pleasures of others, and gentleman enough to give fellow soldiers the music they yearned for.​
 
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LoriAnn

Retired User
Joined
Oct 9, 2015
[Grant had] an almost pathological aversion to musical sounds. He never went to concerts, refused to dance and had a particular (and ironic) hatred for military bands....
I read that he was also shy with women. If that's true, then dances must have been extra painful for him. How sad, not being able to enjoy music. I can't imagine.

Yet he was perceptive enough to observe the musical pleasures of others, and gentleman enough to give fellow soldiers the music they yearned for.
:smile:
 

James B White

Captain
Honored Fallen Comrade
Joined
Dec 4, 2011
As a private, how would he recognize bugle calls? That would be tough. The army ran on musical orders.

I think there was some requirement that all officers (above a certain rank?) had to be able to play the calls themselves, I guess so the army wouldn't be orderless if the bugler was killed. Does that ring a bell (hah) with any of the military experts here? That would be another struggle for Grant.
 

diane

Retired User
Joined
Jan 23, 2010
Location
State of Jefferson
As a private, how would he recognize bugle calls? That would be tough. The army ran on musical orders.

I think there was some requirement that all officers (above a certain rank?) had to be able to play the calls themselves, I guess so the army wouldn't be orderless if the bugler was killed. Does that ring a bell (hah) with any of the military experts here? That would be another struggle for Grant.

There's one I'll bet nobody else thought of! I'd suppose he noted what everyone else did? If he couldn't tell tunes apart he sure couldn't tell bugle calls apart unless he figured out that set of noises means that, this set of noises this. I can't read a clock - always a real struggle to figure out the time on a regular clock face - it was a real problem before digital clocks. It was always what time is it to somebody so you could catch the bus or make the appointment - wonder what trick Grant figured out? Neurology is fascinating.
 

KansasFreestater

1st Lieutenant
Thanks. Never heard of this malady.
You're not alone, Pat. Most people haven't. I never heard of it until a couple months ago. It's fascinating to me that people with this "learning disability for music" have normal hearing and intelligence in other respects, and seem to have no trouble learning languages.
 

KansasFreestater

1st Lieutenant
As a private, how would he recognize bugle calls? That would be tough. The army ran on musical orders.

I think there was some requirement that all officers (above a certain rank?) had to be able to play the calls themselves, I guess so the army wouldn't be orderless if the bugler was killed. Does that ring a bell (hah) with any of the military experts here? That would be another struggle for Grant.
Whew, I don't know! Especially since bugles have only 3 notes, and they're so close together, do-mi-sol! Perhaps the rhythm enabled him to distinguish the different calls. If I understand it correctly, amusia has to do with the inability to discern differences in pitch, not necessarily rhythm:

The MBEA [Montreal Battery for the Evaluation of Amusia] includes a test of rhythmic perception and those with amusia often score in the normal range, although this aspect of the disorder seems variable.​
 
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diane

Retired User
Joined
Jan 23, 2010
Location
State of Jefferson
Also, Horatio Hormblower.

Nelson was also tone deaf - in fact, the Yankee Doodle quote from Grant may have been lifted from Nelson. He attended all sorts of theater and operas and once when asked how he liked the music he replied, "I only know two tunes. One is God Save the King and the other isn't!" He seemed to enjoy all sorts of music until he got whacked in the head with a piece of chain shot at Aboukir Bay. His life got pretty weird after that, come to think of it! Interesting that a lot of military men seem to have this problem. Stonewall Jackson was also tone-deaf - so much so he couldn't even say he knew Dixie from something else! He could dance, though, which is usually not too easy for tone-deaf people. I've heard it rumored Lincoln was tone-deaf - is that so?
 
So let's recap here - perhaps Che Guevara vehemently opposed rock & roll/jazz music not because it could incite the masses and interfere with his communist agenda...

But because it made zero sense to him.

That rascal...

It's a real shame he didn't suffer from something such as leprosy.

:wink:
 
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diane

Retired User
Joined
Jan 23, 2010
Location
State of Jefferson
You're not alone, Pat. Most people haven't. I never heard of it until a couple months ago. It's fascinating to me that people with this "learning disability for music" have normal hearing and intelligence in other respects, and seem to have no trouble learning languages.

I wonder if it's related to discalculia, which is why I can't tell time. Music is mathematical, after all, but in a different way. Jackson could speak Spanish and French - he had a good ear for linguistics but a bad ear for everything else! Military men are almost always great at math, too, and Grant was no exception - but numbers don't sing much. :tongue:
 

missourian

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Apr 19, 2016
Location
Missouri
I read that he was also shy with women. If that's true, then dances must have been extra painful for him. How sad, not being able to enjoy music. I can't imagine.


:smile:
I CAN imagine , I hardly ever listen to any music anymore. I gave it up to make more time for studying the civil war. Lol.
Seriously, I knew of his disinterest in music and military bands etc, but I wonder if this was a lifelong thing or something that came about in his adult years, maybe some kind of "negative experience" that turned him off on music. He seems to have struggled with many things except the military life.
 

KansasFreestater

1st Lieutenant
I knew of his disinterest in music and military bands etc, but I wonder if this was a lifelong thing or something that came about in his adult years, maybe some kind of "negative experience" that turned him off on music.
Well, if Grant had congenital amusia, as many people seem to think, he was born that way. It's a neurological condition, involving the actual physical wiring of the brain. It's been found to run in families. So it would be interesting to know if any of his family members had the same condition.

One Grant biographer (sorry, I can't remember which one) did suggest that perhaps one reason Grant's very pious Methodist mother did not, surprisingly, make him go to church with the family when he was a boy is that church services involved a lot of music.
 
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missourian

Private
Joined
Apr 19, 2016
Location
Missouri
Well, if he had congenital amusia, as many people seem to think, he was born that way. It's a neurological condition, involving the actual physical wiring of the brain. It's been found to have a heritability of 70-80 percent. So it would be interesting to know if other family members had the same condition.

One Grant biographer (sorry, I can't remember which one) did suggest that perhaps one reason Grant's very pious Methodist mother did not, surprisingly, make him go to church with the family when he was a boy is that church services involved a lot of music.
Thanks for posting this, its interesting. Im reading up on Grant now. Currently in Catton's Grant takes Command. I will be looking for anything on him.
 

LoriAnn

Retired User
Joined
Oct 9, 2015
He seems to have struggled with many things except the military life.
I think I read that, in addition to being great with horses, he was also good in mathematics, and he could draw. Perhaps the other jobs he attempted just didn't fit well with his innate strengths.

He, like most people, had some very fascinating pieces to his puzzle!

ETA:

Military men are almost always great at math, too, and Grant was no exception
Ha. I just read your post. Glad you confirmed the math fact. Now I don't have to wonder if I got that right. :D
 
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