Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.
When Ulysses S. Grant was asked what music he liked, he replied: “I know only two tunes. One of them is ‘Yankee Doodle’—and the other isn’t.” At first reading, this seems like a snarky pronouncement of musical stubbornness. Perhaps Grant considered “Yankee Doodle” the apex of musical achievement, and nothing else deserved mention alongside it. This attitude is not uncommon. It is human nature to put certain music on a pedestal and confidently assert that it is better than the rest (though our “pedestal music” is usually more sophisticated than a patriotic ditty). But that was not the meaning of Grant’s remark. His words were much more cynical—and much more literal.
From an early age, the great general (and not-so-great president) professed an intense dislike for music. He was extremely tone deaf: he could not hum, recognize or remember even the most popular airs of his day. Perhaps his inability to retain or reproduce music was so frustrating that it spilled over into animosity. Or maybe music truly sounded awful to his ears. Whatever the reason, his was 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.
Grant most likely suffered from congenital amusia, an anomaly that begins at birth and affects roughly four percent of the population. (There is also acquired amusia, which occurs as a result of brain damage.) The primary symptom is a deficit in fine-grained pitch discrimination. Amusics cannot detect pitch changes when the distance between two successive pitches is small, and thus cannot internalize musical scales. This impairs the person’s ability to enjoy or respond to melodies, most of which consist of slight interval changes.
However, while amusics typically cannot distinguish one musical selection from the next, they often do recognize a single piece, usually one that involves strong rhythms and some sort of fanfare. Many patriotic songs fit this description, with their accompanying parades, flag waving and ritualized gestures. That would explain how Grant could identify “Yankee Doodle” and nothing else.
Music can also be a severe annoyance for some amusics. Their problem is not just a failure of recognition. Music as they hear it is comparable to the banging of pots and pans or some other cacophonous irritant. This also seems to describe Grant’s condition.
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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