Music & Education,  Music & The Brain,  Music and development,  Musical Expertise

Musical times, they are a-changin’…

Hello, dear reader. This week I thought I would write about the changing world of defining and measuring musicality. Once upon a time it was a simple case of asking someone how many years they had been training as a musician. Maybe you might stretch to how often they had practised in the past or now. But essentially, that was it; one or two numbers which defined an individual’s musicality.

Pablo Picasso. Three Musicians. 1921

And we learned a lot  using this method. If it did not work, if it did not throw up fascinating group differences, then it would have disappeared a long time ago. But the fact is that it fostered decades of interesting breakthroughs in our understanding of how exposure to music and musical training can influence our cognitive abilities, brain function and even our approach to life. But even those who advoate this approach will admit, it has limitations.

It is time to think of a new way to to explore musicality, that will allow us to build upon the findings we have already acquired in comparing musicians and non-musicians.

So where do we go from here? Let’s think of a few stimulating questions:

Is years of training the only way to define a musician? What about the type of instrument they play and their experiences of practise and performance?A few years ago there was a series of really interesting papers in the music education field that looked at the differences in practise and learning strategies, and how they mapped onto achievements (e.g. studies by Stephanie Pitts and Gary McPherson) Why are we not considering those types of factors in general musicianship?

And, moreover, how useful is a comparison between musical experts and the rest of us; those of us who bash out a few tunes now and again or who enjoy belting out a good tune in the shower?  I, for example, had a very unique adn rousing version of ‘Dance with Me Tonight‘ going on this morning.Yep, I know, not very sophisticated. But boy, that song has great bounce!

Studies of musical expertise have their place in the academic literature, no doubt, as does any examiniation of human expertise. For example, studies of memory experts proved to be key to unlocking the secrets of mnemonics, tricks that we can use to expand what we hold in memory. And the exploration of such techinques, finding out how they work and why, teaches us a lot about the way that memory functions in general.You can see more about that in my video lecture on musical memory here.

But music is part of human life in so many ways, and musical expertise is just one of the ways that we express our musical abiliites, passions and curisoities. How can we reflect ‘musicality’ in the wider sense so that we can understand more about how our engagment with musical sounds in mulitple ways influences the way we develop both in brain and body?

There are a number of new techniques and tests that are emerging in the literature which promise to take both the study of expertise and musicality to a new level. I can’t talk about them all here, and no doubt there are some that I have  not come across as yet. If you know of any then please feel free to leave a comment and let us know. But here is a short list of 3 new studies in this area:

1) The Goldsmiths Musical Sophistication Index or Gold MSI. The Gold MSI has been developed with the BBC and the initial data was gathered through their ‘How Musical Are You?’ project, which you can still take if you like. The aim is to create a battery of tests that measures all the everyday parts of musicality experience that go beyond musical training and performance. There are also tests that look at general aspects of musical perception and memory, which can develop simply through exposure to music. The test is still in development but it is an exciting move towards a more universal measure of musicality

2) The Musical Ear Training (MET) test was developed by researchers at the University of Aarhus in Denmark. On each trial participants hear two melodies and must say ‘same’ or ‘different’. The test measures melody and rhythm perception. This is important for our idea of general musicality, as hearing skills can develop through simple musical exposure as well as through training. Click here for access to the original paper. The 20 minute test  gives a continum of ability across both musicians and nonmusicians, so it may prove a valuable tool for measuring musicality even if a person has never picked up an instrument.

Musical experience shapes human brainstem encoding of linguistic pitch patterns

3) The Brain responses. There are a number of imaging and EEG techniques that allow sceintists to distinguish degrees of auditory brain response; to quickly assess the power of your musical ear and musical brain. These include the brain’s response to oddball sounds in the environment, as quickly as 100ms after the sound is heard (the MMN paradigm by Peter Vuust) and the frequency following response of the brain stem (Image: see work by Nina Kraus). It is too early yet to determine whether these techniques will equip us with another measure of musicality (or even potential musicality) but the possibilties are exciting.

In the end, I think it is unlikely that any one test can capture the whole concept of how musical we are, and that is why it is great to have options that explore our ears, brains, memories, habits and hobbies. The new age of defining and understanding musicality will allow us to explore how real everyday musical exposure, curiosity and passion influences the way we think and behave.

And, just to finish, here is the source of inspiration for this weeks blog and, as a result, my current earworm. A spot of Dylan, though a cover in this case as you can’t get the original for free. Wishing you a lovely week, wherever the music takes you. 🙂


  • Buck

    Wonderful post! It will take time to digest the links properly. For a slightly different view on the question of ‘what is musicality,’ may I share my own experience?

    I am a life-long viola player. I love my viola, and have quite the tendency to go off the page when practising. That is, if I am working on arpeggios intended to strengthen my shifts from first to third position, I don’t necessarily play the notes as written, but improvise or even play unrelated material that (I rationalise) gives me the same exercise. If I sit down at a piano, I almost never play the notes as written; it’s almost completely improvisation. I can transpose in my head and often do, just because I like to tinker.

    My dear wife, on the other hand, plays piano much better than I and can sight read a good deal better, too. She never improvises, and always plays the notes as written. She never tinkers.

    We are both musical in our own way. I’d be very surprised to find a single test that easily encompasses both of these ‘musicalities.’ I’m really, really enjoying your work. Thank you for sharing with us out on the internet!

  • Jarek

    Seeing that some research is under way towards identifying particular physical/anatomical features of human brain which are a precondition to successful training and performance, gives me some hope that one day my life long misery will be put to an end! Imagine a life of a person who is transfixed by music they hear and yet is permanently unable to play anything him/herself. The torments of Tantalus are like nothing compared to my own (I am now 50 years old). I would love to have my condition “diagnosed”.