The true story of the president who couldn’t hear music

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When Ulysses S. Grant was inaugurated for his first presidential term in 1869, thousands of people showed up to celebrate. It was one of the grandest and swankiest parties held in generations, with pricey tickets and a level of pomp befitting the figurative coronation of the general who had preserved the Union. To no one’s surprise, this included lots of music — bugle-blasting, drum-tapping, parade-marching tunes — that set the tone of the event.

Yet one person who did not enjoy the sound of the beat was the incoming president himself. There is a famous line attributed to the acclaimed Civil War general that helps explain why:

“I know of only two tunes: one of them is Yankee Doodle Dandy, and the other isn’t.”

In a cruel ironic twist, Gen. Grant’s ears were particularly sensitive to military music, which he loathed.

Lest you write this off as a no-nonsense quip from a career soldier expressing contempt for anything other than military music, it was actually an unintentional reference to a neurological condition that Grant had, although he never knew it.

This disorder also would also afflict at least two other future presidents, Theodore Roosevelt and William H. Taft. It is known as congenital amusia, or an inability to hear music and understand it as — well — music. To those with the condition, music typically sounds cacophonous, like noise.  

“Normal people have some musical ability—if I play you a piece of music and I miss a note, you would know something [is] wrong with that. Amusics can’t [tell],” Psyche Loui, a neurology instructor at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center and Harvard Medical School in Boston, told NBC News. “The main compliant is that they cannot sing in tune.”

It is unclear how many people suffer from amusia, in part because so often people who hear them simply assume they are bad singers. And to be fair, that often is the explanation when a person is regularly off-pitch or monotone. Yet when a person has congenital amusia, it means that their biological wiring malfunctions and they are unable to “hear” music in the harmonious, enjoyable fashion experienced by everyone else. It does not necessarily mean that they lack artistic sensitivity, are intellectually impaired or have hearing problems. If an experiment is performed where an amusic person is expected to distinguish between two slightly different pieces of music, they will fail. To the rest of the world, Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony and “Yakety Sax” by Boots Randolph couldn’t sound more different; to an amusic individual, both are just sound.

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Ever since researchers at the University of Montreal discovered twenty years ago that some people are born with an inability to process musical pitch, neurologists have struggled to learn more about exactly how auditory information is encoded in the brain. To this day, they have more questions than answers, but there are some things that are known for sure. For one thing, a person can have congenital amusia for a wide range of reasons. Sometimes the brain is injured after a stroke, which can affect sections of the brain responsible for processing pitch but not other sections that control seemingly related skills, such as comprehending language. In other cases, amusia is passed on genetically; for the last 100 years, researchers had observed that tone deafness seems to run in families (though tone deafness is distinct from amusia, they may be related).

When the lower temporal lobe stays inactive, each note is immediately forgotten when played and the auditory cortex is never able to figure out the intended melody. 

On either occasion, however, the underlying physiology is the same. When sounds are processed from the ear and by the brain, the information is encoded and periodically stored in a part of the temporal lobe known as the auditory cortex. When the lower temporal lobe stays inactive, each note is immediately forgotten when played, and the auditory cortex is never able to figure out the intended melody. Instead, someone like Ulysses S. Grant will merely hear a cacophony of sounds.

“Most amusic individuals do not appear to have problems discerning statements from questions in English and French, however, because the pitch difference is so large,” observes Desiree Ho from Interlude, who covers music and medicine. “This said, it would be interesting to see whether this is also the case in other languages such as Mandarin, where a small change in tone can lead to a completely different meaning. Although research into the condition continues, we are still a long way from understanding precisely how pitch perception works, or how it is encoded in the genes.”

If nothing else, Grant’s life offers a glimpse at how someone with congenital amusia can try to make the best of their situation. As music professor Jonathan L. Friedmann pointed out, Grant struggled in the same ways as many other amusic people. He could not recognize or remember popular songs, much less hum along with and enjoy them. He hated dancing. In a cruel ironic twist, Gen. Grant’s ears were particularly sensitive to military music, which he loathed. Yet he also understood that his soldiers loved the clattering and clanging that so thoroughly appalled him. As such, he made a point of saving money in the military budget so he could hire a competent band leader and talented musical performers for his troops’ morale.

Yet fate would still remain unkind to Grant when it came to his own dislike of music. During the inauguration for his second term in 1873, the weather was 16°F with wind gusts of 40mph that resulted in a wind chill of -15° to -30°F. It was so cold that the musicians were unable to play their instruments, which probably provided Grant with some relief — until there was a cruel twist.

The inaugural committee had put caged canaries on the ceiling to add musical accompaniment to their celebration. While the cold weather made it so the canaries were unable to sing, some of the canaries also died. Hence, in lieu of music, Grant’s second inauguration was met with a shower of dead birds plopping on the partiers’ heads.

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