Listen to these two musical excerpts and note any differences you discern:
If you’re a typical nonmusician, you will probably notice some sort of difference between the two excerpts. Maybe one seems to be played at a different tempo, or with different instrumentation, or is a bit longer or shorter. You probably won’t think either clip sounds unpleasant, and you might not notice any differences at all.
If you are a professional musician, on the other hand, you may find the second clip so appalling that you can’t bring yourself to listen to the entire 20 seconds. You might believe it to be some kind of a musical joke, or wonder how the musicians can go on playing in such cacophony.
The difference between the two clips, readily identified by experienced professional musicians, is that the melody is being played in a different key from its accompaniment. While this technique is sometimes deliberately employed in both Western and non-Western music (the musical term for the practice is “bitonality”), it’s certainly never expected in a familiar work like Ave Maria.
The fact that nonmusicians can’t detect bitonality is the surprising result of a simple little study by Rita Wolpert of Caldwell College (“Attention to Key in a Nondirected Music Listening Task: Musicians versus Nonmusicians,” Music Perception, 2000). Using a Nelson Riddle orchestral arrangement of “You Make Me Feel So Young” (the tune made famous by Frank Sinatra), Wolpert had a professional singer perform the melody. Then she used a digital multi-effect processor to create two bitonal versions of the accompaniment: one a full musical step higher (G when the singer was in F), and the other a step lower (E-flat). She then played the “music” for 40 nonmusicians and 10 professional musicians. Only 5 of the “nonmusicians”—which actually included 7 people with over 6 years of musical training—could conclusively tell that two of the arrangements were sung in a different key from the accompaniment. Meanwhile, the musicians uniformly reacted with disgust, easily identifying the problem with the flawed arrangements.
While 42 percent of the nonmusicians did mention the key as potentially a problem, the remainder didn’t mention it at all, and none of the nonmusicians indicated that the bitonal arrangements were at all unpleasant.
So an aspect of music which musicians find critically important and (often painfully) obvious is simply unnoticed by most listeners. Wolpert’s study may be at least a partial explanation of why thousands of aspiring singers believe they are talented enough to become an “American Idol”—and even have friends and family encourage them to do so—when professional judges like Paula Abdul and Randy Jackson find their shabby attempts at vocalization so laughable that their friends’ encouragment seems like a cruel joke.