Grant's Congenital Amusia

diane

Retired User
Joined
Jan 23, 2010
Location
State of Jefferson
By far, the largest category in the UGA music professor's study is Normal. Most people can differentiate between songs but not whether notes are sharp or flat. This partially explains the popularity of singers such as Bob Dylan, Neil Young and Tom Petty. Most people can't tell that their singing sucks.

Nobody ever accused Bob Dylan of being a singer! His fans are more about what he sings than his singing - now a guy like Frank Sinatra could sing the phone book and sound great.
 

Jimklag

Lt. Colonel
Joined
Mar 3, 2017
Location
Chicagoland
Most people can't tell if a note is sharp or flat? That seems hard to believe. If you have a link to that UGA professor's work, I'd love to see it.
This was done in 1970. I'm not sure he ever even published. Although he must have. I was 19 at the time and I don't even remember his name. You're right.
I should have said most people have trouble perceiving pitch differences rather than "can't tell."
Nobody ever accused Bob Dylan of being a singer! His fans are more about what he sings than his singing - now a guy like Frank Sinatra could sing the phone book and sound great.
Exactly.
 

Gentizzy

Private
Joined
May 4, 2017
Nobody ever accused Bob Dylan of being a singer! His fans are more about what he sings than his singing - now a guy like Frank Sinatra could sing the phone book and sound great.

I have been "cursed" with perfect pitch. I was the "human pitchpipe" for my folk group.
When in college, for 3 years M-F, our chorale director during warm ups made us sing "A", then go down a fifth, up a tritone (oh, the horror!) etc. 40 years later, that A is stuck in my head and I can tell using that as a guide for what note someone is singing or playing.
It can be a "curse" at times. I hear a car horn, or a bell, etc and think, that's a Bflat or a D. It can get obsessive!
I love Bob Dylan for his incredible lyrics. As for his singing, that bothers me not one bit.
What does bother me is a singer who doesn't quite hit the note, just a semi-tone off, drives me nuts!

Anyway, great thread about Grant. I can't imagine how it must be to not be able to enjoy music.
 

Canadian

Sergeant
Joined
Jul 24, 2017
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.

I'm extremely late to this fascinating thread. Wouldn't his love of theater meant that he did mingle with people there? Would that have compensated somewhat for not going to concerts?
 

Canadian

Sergeant
Joined
Jul 24, 2017
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.

He may never have had to learn them. He was never a private. After graduating from West Point he was a lieutenant, and very soon became quartermaster, so would not have been expected to give bugle calls.
 

James N.

Colonel
Forum Host
Annual Winner
Featured Book Reviewer
Joined
Feb 23, 2013
Location
East Texas
He may never have had to learn them. He was never a private. After graduating from West Point he was a lieutenant, and very soon became quartermaster, so would not have been expected to give bugle calls.

The daily routine at West Point was regulated by the bugle - any and every cadet would've had to learn the calls just the same as any private soldier at any other military instillation. Yes, he was a quartermaster - in an infantry regiment. As any kind of officer he was required to be in all dress parades and other military ceremonies just like everybody else!
 

KansasFreestater

1st Lieutenant
OK, so this kinda breaks my heart: There's this wonderful, prize-winning chamber music group called the Ulysses Quartet. (I looked them up since they're coming to my area soon to perform.) Here's an excerpt from their "About" page:

The name ‘Ulysses’ pays homage to Homer’s hero Odysseus and his ten year voyage home. The quartet is based in Washington Heights, New York City, and its members live in close proximity to the resting place of former U.S. president, Ulysses S. Grant. The Ulysses Quartet believes intensely in the power of music to inspire, enlighten, and bring people together. They are committed in sharing this passion by increasing access and appreciation for classical music while enhancing audience engagement.
Poor Ulysses, to whom their beautiful music would have been nothing more than a torturous scraping of horsehair on catgut!
 

Ainatari

Private
Joined
May 26, 2018
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 was thinking about Jackson too- he also apparently couldn't tell the difference between tunes very well either! There is a story is his wife's memoirs where he decided to at least learn to be able to recognize 'Dixie ', so his wife played it the whole evening until they both broke up laughing...
 

CaptSpook

Private
Joined
Apr 13, 2020
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.

View attachment 136614
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.​
Great post.

From my studies of Grant, I knew of his aversion to music but your in depth explanation adds much more.

Thank you for that.
 

Jani

Cadet
Joined
Oct 12, 2020
I'm really enjoying this thread on U. S. Grant and amusia. He was good at math and I thought music and math were connected.
I love any and all information regarding General Grant.
History AND science; a fantastic combination!
Just a word on alcoholism and Grant; I admire his ability to deal with such a debilitating illness. It wreaks havoc on families, careers and society. (Personal opinion; I believe he was a binge drinker who used alcohol to relieve extreme stress, whatever the cause.)
 

Quaama

Sergeant
Joined
Sep 13, 2020
Location
Port Macquarie, Australia
If Grant had congenital amusia how is that in Chapter XXI of his Memoirs he says:
"Some band, by accident, struck up the anthem of "John Brown's soul goes marching on;" the men caught up the strain, and never before or since have I heard the chorus of "Glory, glory, hallelujah!" done with more spirit, or in better harmony of time and place."
And in Chapter XIX:
"In the Court-House Square was encamped a brigade, embracing the Massachusetts Second and Thirty-third Regiments, which had two of the finest bands of the army, and their music was to us all a source of infinite pleasure during our sojourn in that city."

Perhaps it was more of a case that Grant was "a bit of a curmudgeon" (see the OP).
 

CaptSpook

Private
Joined
Apr 13, 2020
I'm really enjoying this thread on U. S. Grant and amusia. He was good at math and I thought music and math were connected.
I love any and all information regarding General Grant.
History AND science; a fantastic combination!
Just a word on alcoholism and Grant; I admire his ability to deal with such a debilitating illness. It wreaks havoc on families, careers and society. (Personal opinion; I believe he was a binge drinker who used alcohol to relieve extreme stress, whatever the cause.)
It brings up the question of how people handle stress. As early as the Mexican-American War, Grant discovered that he was his calmest under fire. It appears he was most stressed during periods of inactivity. Others, like Union BG Ledlie hid with a bottle of rum behind the lines at Petersburg during the Battle of the Crater when he should have been leading his troops.
 

Rhea Cole

1st Lieutenant
Joined
Nov 2, 2019
Location
Murfreesboro, Tennessee
Amusia... My granddaughters will be thrilled. They will, at last, have a diagnosis that will explain why I can't tell one of their favorite songs from another or figure out what is & is not a funny joke. No doubt it will be a source of great comfort for them.
 
Last edited:
Top