Musical Expertise

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

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