Cognitive Daily

Why we can’t all be divas

Listen to these two musical excerpts and note any differences you discern:

Ave Maria, version 1
Ave Maria, version 2
(Source: courtesy of Mayumi Hamamoto and Kyota Ko)

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.


  1. […] onality, stealing keys..( Music )
    Check out Cognitive Daily’s recent entry, Why we can’t all be divas, if you want an explanation of detecting keys in music. I have one minor remark: Whi […]

  2. #2 Greta Munger
    April 9, 2005

    There’s a nice discussion about our post at ehMac. In fact, a similar kind of discussion in lab inspired one of my current students to do her senior thesis on whether non-musicians really can’t hear the difference between bitonal and monotonal music, or if they just don’t have the vocabulary.

  3. […] 2005 Keys Filed under: Music ¡ª Mike @ 9:34 am I can hear the difference between these two, though I am not sure I would’ve noticed had I not been clued in. Then again, I might hav […]

  4. #4 alfons
    April 14, 2005

    yes, beside vocabulary (as in “you don’t know it if you can’t name it”), there’s also exposure to modern day music, which tends to stretch tonality.

  5. […] comments Clark linked to another very interesting blog with a cool listening experiment. Go try it yourself. As hard as I found it to believe, apparently a lot of people can’t tell which versi […]

  6. #6 coturnix
    April 18, 2005

    You can get your subjects at a local karaoke bar. It is immediately apparent who is a musician and who is not. While both may carry a tune well and sing well, musicians also sing in a correct key (the same as the musical background), while non-musicians tend not to.

  7. #7 Carol McComb
    April 25, 2005

    I noticed something was wrong immediately, but it took me a second listening before I figured out that the problem was that the melody and chords were in different keys. At first it just felt randomized. It’s diabolically clever because the opening notes and accompanying chords do have a harmonic relationship (just not the right ones).

    I was surprised that so few non-musicians noticed the problem in your test. I would have guessed that at the least they would have felt uneasy, but not have known why. The test does explain the phenomenom of a person singing a song somewhat relatively in tune in a key, but out of tune with the accompaniment. I had always assumed that the problem was the limited range of the singer and that inexperience (and fear) made it difficult for them to tell they were in the wrong key.

    One observation is that I’d bet that this on-line test is a bit harder to assess with synthesized instruments. I would expect that non-synthesized instruments would reveal the problem much more quickly, because their different overtones would make the two simultaneous keys be more obvious.

  8. #8 Dave Munger
    April 25, 2005

    “I would have guessed that at the least they would have felt uneasy, but not have known why.”

    There is some evidence of this, but it still doesn’t explain the overwhelming result that nonmusicians don’t recognize the problem while all musicians do. Mayumi Hamamoto is working on a set of experiments that explore this issue in more detail; if those results are published we’ll report on them here.

  9. #9 Valerie Rose
    May 1, 2005

    “…still doesn’t explain the overwhelming result that nonmusicians don’t recognize the problem while all musicians do.”

    I’m not able to tell from the wording of the article whether the nonmusicians were unable to hear that the chords even sounded different, or whether they merely couldn’t identify the cause. I actually wouldn’t have expected nonmusicians to be able to figure out the precise difference between the usual notes and the transposed ones; that’s pretty complicated. But, I would have expected them to experience the melody in a different way, backed as it is by chords creating an entirely different harmonic context.

  10. #10 Chuck McKinnon
    May 15, 2005

    Fascinating! I actually listened to both clips before I read the explanations, and the second one practically curled my hair! I actually laughed out loud when I read the explanation of the differences, because I cut off the second excerpt with about five seconds to go.

    I’d have been one of those in the second group who spotted the problem—no formal musical training, but just about everyone on my mother’s side of the family sings or plays an instrument, my father has been a (self-taught) lounge entertainer his entire life, and I’ve been singing in front of an audience since I was two.

    I’ve also been DJing for fifteen years, and perhaps this also explains why some people can’t distinguish a good mix from a cringe-inducing one.

  11. #11 Kim
    May 21, 2005

    I heard and recognized it immediately as just being “off key”. I am NOT a musician, but I am an old dancer, including a lot of tap, jazz, ballet, modern, you name it. This discussion gives me some interesting insight about dancers and dance audience. Dancers boil it down to line, technique, musicality, etc – and the same could be said that non-dancers might not like what they see, but not be able to explain why. I think I could write a book speculating on this, but I’ll spare you all.

  12. #12 Sebastian Seuring
    June 19, 2005

    We are examining this paradigma.
    You want more?
    Try and fill out our online-questionnaire.

    Many thanks.

  13. #13 New Cool Thang -- Ears
    September 27, 2005

    […] Steve put up a great post today over at Kulturblog on developing tastes for the finer things in life¡ªfood, music, art, etc. It is an interesting subject in itself and in the comments Clark linked to another very interesting blog with a cool listening experiment. Go try it yourself. […]

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