Grant's Congenital Amusia

John Winn

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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.

I hadn't heard about the church thing. Very interesting, especially for the times.

Your post caused some odd neurons to fire such that I now wonder what a lullaby sung by, and for, an amusiac would sound like.
 
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You haven't heard Yoko Ono yet? :laugh:

But John Lennon who can't be accused of congenital amusia loved her voice ... he was always pretty offended if people said she could not sing at all.

First thing I thought when reading the headline was "Ouch, what about the bugle calls ...?" But then, as someone pointed out, bugle calls are not really music, they are not as complex as a real melody. He might have recognized the sound pattern, not as a melody, but as a pattern.
Believe it or not, my office had once employed an illiterate as typist for a while. That person was very good in immediate recognizing letters and digits and could find them on the keybord quickly. She did her job for months, typing letters and memos from handwritten notes and manuscripts. The whole thing leaked when dictaphones were invented and her boss did not hand her handwritten notes anymore but tapes. Then she revealed that unbelievable story which is still told here in my office! Therefore, I can imagine that people are able to recognize a pattern even if the true meaning stays hidden to them.
Seems to be the case with maths to me.... I can recognize digits, but don't ask me about the rule of three or fractions ...
 

KansasFreestater

1st Lieutenant
Believe it or not, my office had once employed an illiterate as typist for a while. That person was very good in immediate recognizing letters and digits and could find them on the keybord quickly. She did her job for months, typing letters and memos from handwritten notes and manuscripts. The whole thing leaked when dictaphones were invented and her boss did not hand her handwritten notes anymore but tapes.
What an amazing story!

The human brain never ceases to amaze me. Everyone's is unique. And everyone has unique gifts!
 

KansasFreestater

1st Lieutenant
Believe it or not, my office had once employed an illiterate as typist for a while. That person was very good in immediate recognizing letters and digits and could find them on the keyboard quickly.... Therefore, I can imagine that people are able to recognize a pattern even if the true meaning stays hidden to them.
It reminds me of the difference between "brain" and "mind." One article about amusia described research showing that one part of an amusic person's brain does register the perception of discordant notes, but their conscious mind somehow remains unaware of it. "Their brain knows but their mind does not."
 

John Winn

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It reminds me of the difference between "brain" and "mind." One article about amusia described research showing that one part of an amusic person's brain does register the perception of discordant notes, but their conscious mind somehow remains unaware of it. "Their brain knows but their mind does not."

Indeed. I remember reading about an experiment where volunteers had to wear goggles that made them see everything upside down. At first they were disoriented but in a short while (don't remember how short now) the brain just figured it out and flipped the image. Again, the brain working independently of the mind (which obviously knew what it saw through the goggles was "wrong").
 

KansasFreestater

1st Lieutenant
I hadn't heard about the church thing. Very interesting, especially for the times.

Your post caused some odd neurons to fire such that I now wonder what a lullaby sung by, and for, an amusiac would sound like.
Speaking of lullabies, here's something really weird. In her personal memoirs, Julia Grant, who was very musical and liked to sing and play the piano, describes their honeymoon, as she and Ulysses traveled by boat from St. Louis to Ohio:

This was my first visit away from St. Louis and my first trip on a boat.... I enjoyed sitting alone with Ulys. This was very, very pleasant. He asked me to sing to him, something low and sweet, and I did as he requested.
What's that all about? Grant couldn't tell one tune from another, so to his mind, whatever Julia sang must have sounded like a monotone chant. But then, I guess that wouldn't have mattered. From everything I've read about those two lovebirds, I imagine he just liked listening to Julia's voice!
 

John Winn

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Speaking of lullabies, here's something really weird. In her personal memoirs, Julia Grant, who was very musical and liked to sing and play the piano, describes their honeymoon, as she and Ulysses traveled by boat from St. Louis to Ohio:

This was my first visit away from St. Louis and my first trip on a boat.... I enjoyed sitting alone with Ulys. This was very, very pleasant. He asked me to sing to him, something low and sweet, and I did as he requested.
What's that all about? Grant couldn't tell one tune from another, so to his mind, whatever Julia sang must have sounded like a monotone chant. But then, I guess that wouldn't have mattered. From everything I've read about those two lovebirds, I imagine he just liked listening to Julia's voice!

Maybe it was sort of like the soothing white noise generators people use to help them sleep or deal with stress. Only it was his honey.
 

LoriAnn

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Oct 9, 2015
From everything I've read about those two lovebirds, I imagine he just liked listening to Julia's voice!
Maybe he just figured that if there was ever to be music that he could process and enjoy, it would have to come from her.

The request for something "low" is interesting.

The more I learn about him, the more I can see why Julia appealed to him. She was said to have been very friendly and easy with people in general, and we certainly know from her own words that she thought the world of him. She must have made him feel so comfortable and loved.
 

Northern Light

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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.
it is interesting to read that you cannot read analog clocks. I have the opposite problem. When I read the time on digital clocks it does mean anything to me. I have to consciously try to understand what time it is. I look at a clock that shows me it is five minutes to noon and I know I have 5 minutes until the hour, but looking at a digital watch that says it is 11:55, just doesn't register. Oh, it is still 11:00, so I have lots of time. Brains are such amazingly weird things!
 

KansasFreestater

1st Lieutenant
Maybe he just figured that if there was ever to be music that he could process and enjoy, it would have to come from her.

The request for something "low" is interesting.

The more I learn about him, the more I can see why Julia appealed to him. She was said to have been very friendly and easy with people in general, and we certainly know from her own words that she thought the world of him. She must have made him feel so comfortable and loved.
The only amusic I have ever known personally was my late husband's mother. She strongly disliked music of any and every kind. "Just noise," she said.

But her husband (my father-in-law) was hugely fond of music, and quite talented at it. During the Depression, when he was single and worked as a cowboy for room and board and not much else, one of the few material possessions he actually owned was a guitar. He and his buddies even formed a cowboy band that played local dances. Decades later, when I knew him (my mother-in-law was in a nursing home by then), he'd still get out his harmonica and play along to folk records, and go out dancing with a bunch of friends on weekends.

After she passed on, I asked him one time: As much as you love music, was that kind of hard, to be married to someone who couldn't stand music? He nodded a quiet "yes," but then the sweetest smile came over his face, and he said, "Yes, but she had so many other good qualities...."

I have wondered if Julia Grant felt that way.
 

James N.

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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?

I'm not going to look this up to verify the exact details, but I remember one story about him (probably in Henry Kyd Douglas' book, or maybe Robertson's biography) visiting a home with some of his staff members and being entertained by the two daughters of the family at the piano. After playing several selections one asked Jackson if there was anything he would like to hear. He asked for Dixie and was told, "Why General, I played that a couple of songs back!"
 

KansasFreestater

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Hamilton superstar Ron Chernow has been working on a biography of Grant. Chernow says he'll deal with aspects of Grant that haven't been covered in as much detail/depth by other biographers, such as Grant's family of origin and his childhood. I'm hoping that one of the previously neglected aspects that Chernow will cover will be Grant's amusia. Don't you think such a condition could affect your life in significant ways? For example, I was just reading in Allen Guelzo's Redeemer President, a biography of Lincoln, that antebellum America was a very literary and musical culture. This particularly caught my eye:

In 1855, Musical World editor Richard Willis boasted that his magazine was read by the president, vice president, members of the cabinet, and seventy members of Congress.
Of course, some of those "readers" may have just been people who subscribed because it was the "in" thing to do. And certainly, in the 1850s, Ulysses Grant was nowhere near the political and cultural centers of Washington, New York, Philadelphia and Boston. But from 1865 to 1877, Grant did live in Washington, at the very summit of political power, first as general-in-chief, then as president, and my point is that virtually everyone around him -- the pond that he swam in, so to speak -- was hugely interested in music. Music was just one of the sinews of the culture. As President, Grant often ran into trouble for not being a "team" player, for making his own decisions (which sometimes turned out badly) and going his own way. I don't believe his amusia had anything to do with that -- but isn't music one more of those little bits of "social glue" that bond people together but was missing in Grant? Lincoln, by way of contrast, was a huge fan of the theatre, and his bond with the people certainly wasn't hurt by the fact that theatregoers often saw their President up there in the box, enjoying the same show that they were.
 
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I don't believe his amusia had anything to do with that -- but isn't music one more of those little bits of "social glue" that bond people together but was missing in Grant? Lincoln, by way of contrast, was a huge fan of the theatre, and his bond with the people certainly wasn't hurt by the fact that theatregoers often saw their President up there in the box, enjoying the same show that they were.
Interesting theory. Grant continued to be popular despite the rain of abuse from Dems and his attendance at musical events would not have impacted his approval rating.
 
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