Category Archives: Musical Expertise

Music and Neurosciences V – Blog 2 (Musical expertise and more?)

Hello Dear Reader

BreadButterKnifeDay 2 of Music and Neurosciences began well, as only a breakfast in France can….freshly baked bread and President Butter!! Oh if only this stuff was part of a healthy diet. No harm in a treat when you are in one of the homes of good food though ;-) After enjoying my breakfast I wobbled to the conference in time for the official welcome from the representatives of Dijon and the local university.

The first symposium of the day was arranged by Sylvain Moreno, a researcher whose who features quite a lot in my new book.  Sylvain has a big interest in the transfer effects of musical expertise. He started a few years ago, working on the theory that there was likely to be transfer between music and language skills. It appears now that the interest is turning to attentional control…

But more on Sylvain’s work in a minute…

The symposim was entitled ‘Music expertise and more? ‘

First we had a presentation by Vesa Putkinen, who made use of the visually stimulating Prezi format for his presentation. This software makes a nice change from PowerPoint but the hardware did appear to struggle a little with the transitions. Nevertheless, the presentation contained some fantastic longitudinal studies of musical training.

Longitudinal studies are an important step forward in the search for music transfer effects. They are expensive and suffer from high dropout rates but they help isolate the effects of music training that (ideally) are not present before the training starts.

Me in EEG!
Me in EEG!

In one of Vesa’s projects (MusicPupils) he reported 1-6 recordings for children from the age of 7, 9, 11, 13, 15, and 17yrs. That is an impressive data set of ten years testing! His measure is EEG and he reported increases in MMN (mismatch negativity) amplitude in children who took music lessons compared to a control group. The increased neural response applied to tests of melody, rhythm, mistuning and timbre.


One of his interesting findings related to an EEG component indicative of attention (P3a). Vesa reported a difference in this component in musical individuals compared to controls at age 13-15, but then not between 15-17 years of age. The possibility is that musical children might see early advantages in attentional processing that equalise to control children later in life.

lisa_singing_by_steven4554-d3fn7hbThe next talk came from Dana Strait who gave a succinct presentation on the work she has completed with Nina Kraus regarding the cABR or complex auditory brain stem response. Complex refers to complex sounds like speech and music as opposed to simple sine tones. Her research has looked at over 300 individuals from three different cross section populations, pre-schoolers, older children and adolescents.

The older children and adolescents but not the pre-schoolers reliably show more faithful reproduction of harmonics in noise.

Dana discussed a theory as to how musical training may sharpen basic neural responses. This theory centres on cellular changes in a brain structure called the inferior colliculus. This crucial pathway in the auditory system may play a crucial role in promoting the acquisition of related learned abilities such as language.

Painting_kidThe third talk came from the chair, Sylvain Moreno. He talked about intervention programs, where music lessons are introduced, compared usually to visual art lessons.

In previous studies, after one month of lessons, musical interventions have been associated with better verbal IQ.

Newer studies in older adults suggest that inhibitory control may also be enhanced following musical training.

Following his data with children and adults, Sylvain has adopted a 3D model of music transfer effects characterised by the levels and nature of the transfer. This framework offers a model for future testing in this area.

The final talk was given by Glenn Schellenberg. Glenn summarised his thoughts on the transfer evidence to date, adding a welcome note of caution that musical training is likely to be a cause as well as a consequence of enhanced cognitive abilities and that differentiating these factors is very difficult – though longitudinal intervention studies are perhaps the best way to tackle this issue.

ukeleleGlenn spoke about his work linking personality to music transfer effects; perhaps different personality dimensions in children and adults. This will be a factor that of importance for future studies to consider. Glenn also gave described some new data linking a ukulele intervention in schools to an increase in social skills, as assessed by questionnaires.

The questions from the crowd at the end of this session were interesting but I thought the best came from Andrea Halpern who brought up the issue of having proper control groups for transfer studies. It is of course not obvious what is the correct control group for any one study and this would probably depend on the hypothesis in question.But this is a serious issue that needs to be considered in any intervention stufy.

A good morning’s brain activity! I headed for a nice cup of tea (yes, you can take the girl out of Britain…) and a chat with colleagues.

How musical am I?

Hello Dear Reader

York DaffsThe clocks have changed for another year and we are all making our way out of the long winter in the lush promise of spring. Here in Luzern the trees are finally displaying green folliage and the crocuses are well in bloom. I have to say, I miss daffodils. At home in York you see daffs everywhere at this time of the year and I love having little vases of them in the house. For now however, I will enjoy the unfolding Swiss spring symphony.

This week my mind has turned to the question of musicality. What does it mean to be musical?

Orquesta_Filarmonica_de_JaliscoWhen I was first studying music psychology there was an abundance of studies that compared to mental or physical abilities or traits of groups of so-called ‘musicians’ and ‘non-musicians’. If you were lucky you might see a deliniation of ‘amatuer’ and ‘professional’ categories but really most studies just decided you were either musical or you were not, dependent largely on whether you had received formal training in the Western classical tradition.

This type of study is not to be written off – we have learned many fascinating things about the impact of music education on our brains and bodies thanks to such research.

Having said this, you may also take issue (rightly) with such a gross division of the populus for many reasons:

1) Arbitrary cut offs often mean that some people who are very close together end up in different groups. For example, say your criteria for musicianship is 8 years training and I have 7. Am I not a musician in that case?

2) You can get around point 1) by saying your ‘non-musicians’ must have little or no formal training. Fine, but what do you mean by “formal training”? People learn music in a multitude of different ways, including very different methods (e.g. Suzuki or Kodály) or many can be self taught (also known as autodidactism).


Famous self taught musicians include Louis Armstrong, Keith Moon, Django Reinhardt and Jimi Hendrix. Incidentally, I am going through such a Hendrix phase at the moment – love it.

Autodidact composers include Arnold Schoenberg and Edward Elgar.

Would we class any of these people as ‘non-musicians’? Really?!

3) Another way around the definition problem might be to only test people who can read music. But then again, plenty of well known and respected musicians never learned notation.

So what is a musician? Perhaps there is no such label, other than that which relates to a person’s profession. Perhaps musicality should be seen as a continuum rather than an ‘in or out’ definition.

That argument drove the development of the Goldsmiths Musical Sophistication Index or Gold MSI by my good friend and colleague Dr Daniel Müllensiefen and his team.

What is musical sophistication? This term was chosed as it has been little used in the literature so came with less bias than other terms such as musicality. It is viewed by the authors as ‘…a psychometric construct that can refer to musical skills, expertise, achievements, and related behaviours across a range of facets’.

I Hear MusicPeople with a higher level of musical sophistication: 1) are more likely to be highly responsive to music; 2) engage more frequently in behaviours that require musical skill, interest and/or understanding; 3) find musical behaviours more easy and engaging; and 4) have amased a greater range of musical abilities and regular hobbies/work related acitivites.


So a high musically sophisticated person could be a professional musician but could also be a DJ or music blogger who never learned an instrument or a singing lesson in their life. Perhaps an audio engineer, a music producer, or just someone who adores music and fills their life with  it as much as possible.

The Gold MSI documentation is all freely available, including scoring sheets, here. The full scale includes both self report measures and listening tests.

The Gold MSI has been through rigorous development over many years. Trust me – I saw it happen (from a distance!) One of the final incarnations of the development phase was a collaboration with the BBC where the Gold MSI was placed online as part of the BBC Lab UK scheme and consequently was taken by 147,633 people.

Such a large sample allowed for advanced modelling of the component scale structure and for rigorous analysis of important factors such as internal validity (how much questions that propose to measure the same construct actually produce similar scores) and self-report reliability (how similar a person’s scores are over time).

The self report scale items have been factor-reduced down using modelling techniques to produce several dimensions of musical sophistication that include musical training but that also refer to active engagement with music, singing ability, and emotional response to music (see Figure 1).

8384225765_1ff68c4102_bThe Gold MSI listening tests also use real music. This is a point that sets the scale apart from all other musical listening tests that I know of which typically rely on artifically created tones, scales and chords. The use of real music also makes the Gold MSI a more effective parallel to the way that musical learning is really tested in music exams – every ear test I took as part of my music education always used a real piano!

According to the authors: “Since many musical skills are not explicitly trained, but are developed through repeated and focused engagement with music, the results from this large sample highlight the processes of implicit learning that take place during enculturation with Western music”.

In other words the Gold MSI moves focus away from specilization in music, as in professionals, and looks at the continuum of musical learning, skill and interest that exists in the wider population.

The Gold MSI is a really exciting development in music psychology. It offers a free-to-use tool that allows researchers to assess how musical sophistication varies across a wide range of people and to determine how this ability might relate to other mental faculties.

journal.pone.0089642.g007There have already been interesting findings. For example, in the new article the authors use the Gold MSI to map musical sophistication across the UK – full figure is available to view in the paper (Figure 7).

They also relate musical sophistication to personality constructs, and find that individuals who are open to new experiences and rank high on extraversion possess higher levels of musical sophistication.

I much appreciate this step forward in music psychology methods and the change in view it represents for our assumptions about musicality in general. The Gold MSI embodies the notion that everyone has musicality within them and that there are many ways to nurture this sense that extend beyond a traditional formal Western music education.

So…how musical are you? In most cases, probably far more than you think!

Citation: Müllensiefen D, Gingras B, Musil J, Stewart L (2014) The Musicality of Non-Musicians: An Index for Assessing Musical Sophistication in the General Population. PLoS ONE 9(2): e89642. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0089642