Most people do not understand music?

Well, it depends on how you define ‘music’ (see also my comments below), but either way… From lesswrong:

Comment by Will_Newsome: “‘Aren’t there people who can hear sounds but not music?’

FWIW I’ve read a study that says about 50% of people can’t tell the difference between a major and a minor chord even when you label them happy/sad. [ETA: Happy/sad isn’t the relevant dimension, see the replies to this comment.] I have no idea how probable that is, but if true it would imply that half of the American population basically can’t hear music.”


Comment by army1987:

It shocked the hell out of me, too.”

The stuff in army1987’s link I found frankly incredible and I’ll probably do a bit of googling later on to see what pops up. It seems that whereas commenters to the article do not generally seem to have problems with distinguishing the isolated chords, quite a few of them do have significant problems with the sequence in the post. I’m flabbergasted that anyone would have any problems with either of the examples.

Knowing this will probably radically change how I think about e.g. giving concerts to ‘normal people’. Before I’ve basically assumed that people heard what I heard, more or less, when I played something. But if people have problems with stuff as simple as the sequence in the link, I should really take people at their word when they tell me that they ‘do not understand this kind of music’. I’ve always thought such a statement was best translated: ‘I couldn’t tell Beethoven from Mozart (‘I mentioned those two names because they are the only ones I know…’) and I do not feel comfortable judging types of music I don’t know very well.’ (or something along those lines) But maybe a better way to translate it would be: ‘I can’t hear what’s going on.’ People have quite a few times in the past told me that I shouldn’t worry about anything when playing for them because they wouldn’t be able to tell if I made a mistake or not anyway. I’ve always assumed they were just being nice and that of course they would be able to tell if I made a mistake; I’ve never seriously considered the possibility that some of them might actually have told me the truth.

They – including perhaps some of the readers of this blog (go have a look at the link if you’re curious) – really don’t know what they are missing out on. I framed the post title the way I did because it in my mind requires a lot more than just being able to distinguish notes to actually understand in any meaningful way at least most of the music I prefer to listen to. Learning to play (badly) has given me a much greater understanding of just how complex some music really is, how nuanced and detailed it is when you take that closer look you need to take to get to the bottom of it; and I’m well aware that ‘even someone like me’ will miss some details along the way. People much better than me do that as well.

Also, this makes it a little easier for me to understand how stuff like pop music ever got, well, popular. It has always been somewhat hard for me to explain the musical preferences of ‘the majority’ in a satisfactory way, and I’ve usually just used some implicit explanation involving ‘preferences…’ (which did not really explain much). Of course there are still a huge number of variables at play here, but it never really occured to me that part of the explanation for the diverging preferences might be that what I hear with my ears might not be what a lot of other people hear.

April 13, 2012 - Posted by | Biology, Music

1 Comment »

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