Listen to these two short music clips.
Now, can you identify the musical style of each clip?
If you said “Classical,” you’re technically only correct for the first clip. The second clip is actually in the Romantic style (bonus points for identifying the works and composers in the comments!). While both are examples of the classical genre, classical music is also divided into styles corresponding roughly to historical periods: Baroque, Classical, Romantic, and Post-Romantic. Traditionally, only trained musicians have been regarded as being able to easily distinguish between these styles.
But is that ability merely due to musicians’ familiarity with individual musical compositions, or is there something about the underlying structure of the music that enables musicians to tell the difference more readily than non-musicians? If the musical structure accounts for the difference, then can non-musicians easily be trained to recognize it, or is extensive musical training required?
Simone Dalla Bella and Isabelle Peretz found an innovative way to address those questions. Simply playing clips like the ones above gives trained musicians an unfair advantage, because they are more likely to be familiar with the specific musical composition. Instead, the researchers had a professional composer write four new compositions in each of the four major styles of classical music. They analyzed each piece for musical similarities and differences, and then played them for three different groups of volunteers: non-musicians familiar with Western music (Canadian college students); trained musicians familiar with Western music (music students at the University of Montreal); and non-musicians unfamiliar with Western music (exchange students from China who had spent less than two years in Canada).
They played the clips, about 30 seconds long each, in pairs. Participants were asked to rate each pair on a scale for similarity, with 1 being “very different” and 7 being “very similar.” If training offered a special advantage, then Western musicians should more be able to more readily observe the differences between different musical styles. Further, they should rate music that comes from more distant historical periods as more different than non-musicians. Here are the results:
As you can see, Western musicians did identify the most differences between styles, but even non-Western non-musicians were able to successfully see larger differences between styles that were more historically distant.
A deeper analysis of the data found that all participants were using the same musical criterion to distinguish between styles: the variation in duration of notes, which was measured in two ways. First, the researchers measured the length of each note in a composition and then calculated the standard deviation of this length (a range around the average note length in which most notes fell)—the larger this measure, the more variation in note length occurred. Next, they measured the variability of the difference in length between neighboring notes. Again, the larger this measure, the more variability between notes. The similarity ratings of experts and novices alike correlated strongly to these two measures.
Western musicians with extensive musical training did rely to a certain extent on tonal differences, but even without this training, non-musicians can easily identify different musical styles. So it appears that everyone can discern the differences between musical styles with a minimum of training.
Dalla Bella, S., & Peretz, I. (2005). Differentiation of classical music requires little learning but rhythm. Cognition, 96, B65-B78.