Why we can't all be divas

[originally posted April 6, 2005]

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)

i-eca0cf2af9fc3ac4445c7dff7d8aab70-research.gifIf 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.

Wolpert, R.S. (2000). Attention to key in a nondirected music listening task: Musicians vs. nonmusicians. Music Perception, 18(2), 225-230.

More like this

Listen to these two musical excerpts and note any differences you discern: Ave Maria, version 1Ave 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…
Take a listen to this brief audio clip of "Unforgettable." Aside from the fact that it's a computer-generated MIDI performance, do you hear anything unusual? If you're a non-musician like me, you might not have noticed anything. It sounds basically like the familiar song, even though the…
Listen to these two short music clips. Music Clip 1Music Clip 2 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…
If you've had a lot of musical training, you can probably tell the difference between a major and minor key. If you haven't had much training, even after having the difference explained to you, you're still not likely to be able to make that determination. Listen the following clip. It plays the…

Just a heads up on this note, but an upcoming issue of _Cognition_ will be all about music cognition. Most or all of the articles are already in the "articles in press" section, though whether you can access them or not before publication depends on your library's agreement w/ them, I think.

You seem to ascribe the difference between the musicians and the non-musicians to "talent," particularly with your title. But that's not implied by the article. Musical training might explain the difference just as well as innate musical talent.

I agree with Fergus. I would contend that a few hours of studying some examples could teach me to appreciate the tonal distinction. Doesn't make me a musician, and the fact that I didn't know enough to care about the distinction doesn't inherently make it impossible for me to be a successful musician. The fact that I'm tone deaf and can't carry a tune probably does, though.

Interesting article, though. :)

When would this training have taken place? Right before listening to the clips or early in childhood??

My SO had no musical training growing up but has spent several hours on musical appraciation, lectures on various styles of music, etc. The only difference he noted was that the second clip sounded louder, but not bad.

I took piano lessons growing up and I could tell from the beginning something was wrong. I thought perhaps the second clip was in a minor key.

He often tells me he can't hear things in music that are very obvious to me. I think people who can hear certain qualities in music can't understand that other people can not.

[disclaimer: I'm a musician]

While I'm not surprised that non-musicians wouldn't be able to pinpoint exactly what was wrong with the second clip, I'm bowled over by the fact that many people don't even feel that it sounds unpleasant!

It seems like "unpleasantness" in music might be a learned response. Maybe there is nothing inherently unpleasant about the second clip, but after getting musical training (Western, usually), we are taught to recognize bitonality as jarring.

That reminds me of the two-note musical interval called the "tritone," or an augmentent fourth. A hundred years ago, musicians called it the devil's interval and it was not allowed in sacred music because if its unpleasant tone. Today, it's used extremely often, and is not considered unpleasant- just different.

Nope, doesn't sound bad as such. It does sound a bit, well, disconnected - like the melody and accompainment weren't recorded at the same time perhaps, and imperfectly meshed afterwards. I doubt I would have thought so had I not known befrehand that there was supposed to be something wrong with it, though. It also feels decidedly more mournful than the first version but I guess that may just be that the key used in the second version carries that connotation.

I agree with renee above; it's quite probable that educated musicians have simply been taught (implicitly, through learning what to like) to dislike this effect.

I think (speaking as a professional musician who also has a (philosophical) background in cognitive science) that it's to some extent also that musicians have an understanding of the "language" of music - in a way, the "meaning" conveyed.

It's not that music communicates the same sorts of things that natural language does, but in the same way that computer languages or mathematical systems have a way of fitting together and creating meaningful structures, melody, harmony and rhythm have comprehensible ways of fitting together. There are, of course, many different musical systems too, but in general a reasonably-trained (or reasonably-talented) musician will be able to fairly quickly pick up the system that's being used, so that even if they're not trained in a particular Asian pentatonic scale, they'll be able to tell (intutively or systematically) if a melody mistakenly drops out of that system...
Similarly, a 20th century composer like Shostakovich had a very detailed and dense harmonic "language", shared somewhat with contemporaries like Prokofiev and Kabalevsky etc, which one can pick up on pretty easily; you can recognize it instantly, understand how it works and what it "conveys", even though you're unlikely to be able to easily compose a piece convincingly in that style.

With regard to the bitonal Ave Maria, it was of course instantly obvious what had been done, but to me it wasn't particularly painful - as noted, it's a technique very popular in 20th century music. It sounds silly, and wouldn't be sustainable for very long.

Interestingly, bitonality is often unintentionally used in popular music, particularly by ignorant techno remixers (I say this as a connoisseur of many types of electronica). They'll pick up on the first couple of notes of a melody, and dump it into the key of the first note, say, when that note was actually, say, the dominant (rather than the tonic, the "home" note of the key of the piece). This tends to irritate the hell out of me.
Similarly, a lot of Jamaican vocalists in dancehall/ragga/dub/reggae will "toast" (the Jamaican half-singing/half-rapping style) around a key which is very frequently not the key of the "rhythm" (the backing music). This may be because their vocal has been dubbed onto a different rhythm from the original, or it may be because they just don't notice! (This despite their often being incredibly adept rhythmically.)

I'd be fascinated to read the music-oriented issue of Cognition, but I don't belong to an institution where I could read it, I think. Can one purchase an issue online? (I guess I could check!)

I'm not a musician, but the fact that there was a difference in the accompaniment was pretty clear. I wouldn't have known that it was in the key (not sure what that is), but the second accompaniment sounded almost ominous.

I neither hear nor feel any difference in the two.

While I'm not surprised that non-musicians wouldn't be able to pinpoint exactly what was wrong with the second clip, I'm bowled over by the fact that many people don't even feel that it sounds unpleasant!

Ditto. I'm not a professional musician, but was a trained pianist and singer from age 5 to 23. Even after years away from music, this hit me instantly. I'm still trying to figure out how it's even possible that everyone can't hear it. Like the article suggested, I could only listen to about 5 seconds before I had to stop it.

Speaking as someone who is studying music perception and cognition for my PhD, but someone who doesn't know the Wolpert article, I'm not surprised that they've found those results - non-musicians just don't hear the same subtleties as musicians.

Harmony is a really complex thing to hear and understand. Cross-culturally, the presence of harmony, and especially complicated harmonic movements, is almost unique to Western cultures - most cultures have solo instruments/singing and at most a drone; this is not because other cultures don't have incredibly complex music - they often do - but it's just not complex harmonically. It seems as if kids - even kids getting piano lessons - don't really understand harmony until the age of 9 or so, whereas they understand rhythm and melody at a much earlier age.

However, what you find if, instead of asking non-musician participants whether there are differences between two bits of music, you test things like galvanic skin response or brain wave activity, you tend to find with things like harmony that children - and non-musician adults - are sensitive to those changes, even if not consciously.

Which makes sense, because at heart music isn't about telling the difference between two melodies. No-one, apart from musicians and maybe music critics, really listens to performances of music with the express purpose of comparing it to other music or performances. They listen to music because it makes them feel happy or sad or excited or (etc). I suspect that you'd find that - in the right environment, which may not be a cog psych lab - that the properly performed version of Ave Maria would move people more than the altered version - whether they can tell the difference or not.

Taking that hat off and putting on my jazz pianist hat (beret?) on, my piano teacher was very fond of the likes of Bill Evans, and so I learnt a form of jazz piano playing that used incessant chord substitutions and was fond of using chords that had very dissonant aspects to them. Even today when I write songs (in a much more pop than jazz vein - hi there, Peter Hollo!) I have a tendency of ending songs on the craziest chord possible (i.e., one song is in G and ends on a Dbdim chord). In regards to Ave Maria, I didn't find the other version unpleasant until the very end; I was hearing it as an interesting transposition of the melody which involved interestingly dissonant chord structures.


I have no musical training beyond a few years of piano lessons, and I perceived the second recording as profoundly "weird" -- mostly unpleasant. Unless it was part of some modern music experiment, I don't think I'd choose to listen to it. I like dissonance in music, but that's just too much.

By Caledonian (not verified) on 27 Jul 2006 #permalink

For a really good time, try listening to the two recordings simultaneously.

By Caledonian (not verified) on 27 Jul 2006 #permalink

Cross-culturally, the presence of harmony, and especially complicated harmonic movements, is almost unique to Western cultures - most cultures have solo instruments/singing and at most a drone; this is not because other cultures don't have incredibly complex music - they often do - but it's just not complex harmonically.
Fascinating. Last night I went to see the documentary "Crossing the Bridge" about music in Istanbul. Toward the end of the film, as they were moving away from modern to more traditional forms of Turkic music, I noticed exactly these shifts, that the melody of the singer was followed by several instruments, rather than the instruments giving harmonic support to the melody. What was musically interesting was teh complexity of the melody itself and the combination of string and woodwind instruments against the rhythm of the drum. Yes, very complex, but not harmonically complex. (I was alos fascinated by the use of "demi tones" or notes and progressions that sounded to me like they were "between" notes in the base scale they were using. I know that traditional music doesn't use the "tempered" scales of western music, but it was fascinating and beautiful to hear it.

Reading about this study gave me about the same reaction as listening to that second clip, namely slight nausea and a recognition of something that was gimmicky in a boring familiar way.

This study says nothing about anything. Next, they'll probably go from door to door with two paintings, coming up with the answer, after months of study that, unbelievably, 58% of people didn't know that painting #1 was terrible.

The reason the second clip makes me ill is because I spent a long time trying to learn my instrument within a Western tradition of notes being related by whole ratios, and certain consonances being the only acceptable consonances. The way that I knew I was playing my instrument correctly was by being able to notice when a note was not in key. For the first few years of playing, I would jump a bit when something like that came out of my instrument. Is it strange that if it's done over and over again that I feel a bit uneasy?

I'm waiting for the survey by Koreans astounded by the fact that most Americans cannot detect the most basic errors in traditional Pansori music.

Consonance is not profound. Some other musics operate by varying not only the melody, but simultaneously the degree of dissonance in a way that is almost percussive. Plenty of popular rock works have been out of key because the people who composed them didn't know 'better'. Also the audiences weren't bright enough not to like it.

Every dominant culture seems perpetually astounded when their deeply held values don't seem to be objectively meaningful or significant apart from the social capital gained by a person in that society to the degree that they can conform to those values. This often masquerades as science. After they find the gay gene, the productivity gene, and the programming language logic gene (from an absurd pedagogical study I heard about last week, no lie!), maybe they'll get to the harmony gene.

To me, version 2 seemed like they played a section of the accompaniment from a different part of the song, but i didn't clue in that it was a totally different key. It sounded somehow wrong, but not intolerable. I have tinkered with playing the guitar for years, but have realised from nearly the start that I didn't have a good enough ear to be a serious musician. I think it's probably a matter of degrees, rather than simply "you got it or you don't". Or at least that a non-musical ear can be trained to a greater sensitivity to pitch and harmony.

I didn't get it at first. The first couple of bars sound allright, the melody simply serves a different harmonic function. It's much more tense, though and after a little while it get painfully irritating. Also, when the melody goes "up" (to the major third) it goes from "tense" to "completely wrong in every social and musical context".

Ok, now I read the comment by tim. :)

And another thing. It isn't "just tradition", it's music. Some things just sound bad. It can even be described physically (and mathematically). Try major third over a minor chord, in a natural minor song with strong harmony towards the root. It. Just. Doesn't. Work (I've tried. Often).

There are however many things which can be "learned" in music. I also think that different cultures have learned to like harmonies which don't sound good to any other cultures. Think about klezmer music for instance. Who'd have thought, in advance, that the double harmonic scale would sound good? It's weird, but people can easily learn to like it.

Musical laws are a fact, not just a cultural phenomenon. Ask any person on earth. They will find the major pentatonic a nice scale to listen to.

And about the tritone. It IS unpleasant. It is just so nice to hear it stop, resolve, and it adds tension to an otherwise boring song. Try the blues. If someone did a solo consisting entirely of the "blues" note (flat 5) you'd actually get very irritated. The soloist hangs on that note to create tension, a massive amount of feeling, until you are at the edge og your seat. Then he lets go, and that sounds extremely pleasant. Tension makes music interesting. Mozart (and probably all of the classical composers, including Bach too) used to smuggle this interval in (it appears in the dominant seventh chord, for example) and then "resolve" it. No one who didn't have a musical education noticed, it just sounded nice. Played alone though, without any context, it DOES sound bad, not just different.

Damn you, you bastards, I could barely tell the difference until you pointed it out. Now the second one sounds like someone's banging dishpans in the back gound. It's a little distressing.

I hope I haven't been ruined for life.

Something else to consider is that multi-tonal music is fairly common these days -- we hear it in soundtracks, in rock music, in jazz, and in world music to name just a few. Hearing an accompaniment in a different key just does not sound as jarring as it might have fifty years ago.

There are other differences in the second example that make it seem inferior, such as the lack of confidence of the tone and the more jagged rhythm sense. I would not be so quick to write off "non-musicians" as such just because they didn't know exactly what was wrong, though.

Is bitonality really all that is different between the two clips? Some notes in the second clip appear to be played with varied volume (a weird sort of crescendo) and the tempo isn't quite right. Or am I completely mistaken?

Ah, I see someone else has noticed this, too. That's one of the problems with cognitive tests: people may be noticing a difference but the difference they notice may not be what the researches think it is because the researchers themselves don't notice the real difference, either.

Wow, this is soooo fascinating. Here's a little more grist for the wheel. Consider that most people with musical talent and a good ear will probably seek out musical education. And they may stop because they get busy doing other things, but not usually because they get a sense that they can't do it. And, the average person with no musical training or very little probably didn't seek out (or stopped) training because they were not inclined or had no ear for it. Then the results become obvious. What you need is to test youngsters for ear, and then randomly assign them to get a certain amount of musical education and then see what a difference it makes. Now that would be interesting.

As for the dissonance being unpleasant... Well one's emotional response to the sound would likely be culturally based. But music has a physical component too! So if you have a chord that's ringing correctly (good old barbershop term), then you should have all kinds of wave and energy stuff happening, where the waves start to augment each other, rather than crashing and being chaotic. I don't have enough training myself to describe the musical aspect of that idea, but imagine a series of waves in a small puddle. If the wave patterns match they'll stay regular and maybe get bigger. But if the wave patterns don't match (like a spray of droplets), then you get chaotic peaks and troughs. And those little hairs in the inner ear *will* notice the difference. But some people may have finer ability to notice small differences than others, some due to training, and some due to innate ability (which can be augmented by training).

For the record, I couldn't listen to the second one all the way through. It just sounded bad. I like world music, but Ave Maria is classical, and therefore should follow those rules! It's like using your CPU to crack nuts. Sure you can do it, but...

I am not a musician, but the second one was a bit disturbing. I had to turn it off halfway through because it felt weird, like it was vibrating my cells the wrong way.

This study seems a little flawed, or perhaps like it is looking in the wrong place. Instead of testing perception alone, they should have also have tested the hearing ranges of the participants. They should have also been asked to pick out the same melody in different songs to test that ability.

By MutualDisdain (not verified) on 24 Jan 2007 #permalink