Is Music Appreciation a Learned Trait?


I was surprised, while listening to the audiobook of Vladimir Nabokov’s autobiography, Speak, Memory, to learn that the great literary master — a man of so keen a visual sensibility as to rise to rapturous rhetorical flights in describing a collection of mushrooms picked by his mother half a century before — had no ear at all. “Music, I regret to say, affects me merely as an arbitrary succession of more or less irritating sounds,” he wrote. “Under certain emotional circumstances I can stand the spasms of a rich violin, but the concert piano and all wind instruments bore me in small doses and flay me in larger ones.”

A new study performed by the University of Melbourne suggests that the ability to enjoy music can actually be taught — that familiarity with chord patterns renders them less jarring to the ear:

The team played both “pure tones” and various chords for participants — a mixed group of trained musicians studying at the school’s conservatory and members of the general public — and had them rate the sounds for perceived dissonance, and for familiarity, on a five-point scale.

Trained musicians, perhaps predictably, were more sensitive to dissonance than lay listeners. But they also found that when listeners hadn’t previously encountered a certain chord, they found it nearly impossible to hear the individual notes that comprised it. Where this ability was lacking, the chords sounded dissonant, and thus, unpleasant.

The ability to identify tones and thus enjoy harmonies was positively correlated with musical training. Said study co-author Sarah Wilson, “This showed us that even the ability to hear a musical pitch (or note) is learned.”

But familiarity wasn’t Nabokov’s problem. He was shlepped to the opera constantly as a child (“I must have attended Ruslan and Pikovaya Dama at least a dozen times in the course of half as many years”) and it had no effect on his receptiveness to music. (Of course, that might just say something about Ruslan and Pikovaya Dama.) I doubt that if I were exposed repeatedly to, say, electro trance music, I would be any less inclined to run away from it screaming. The study says that familiarity renders chord patterns less dissonant, which may be true, but then infers that less dissonant means more enjoyable. Can that leap be made?

I’ve noticed that a degree of musical sensitivity appears to be innate — every kid I’ve asked (and I’ve asked quite a few over the years) has identified a major third as “happy” and a minor third as “sad” — but it seems folly to conclude that music appreciation is universally teachable. There must be variants in receptivity, as Nabokov appears to demonstrate. It seems reasonable to infer a relationship between music and language, and Nabokov’s receptiveness to language was so exceptionally keen that he “saw” letters of the alphabet in very particular colors (“the alder-leaf f, the unripe apple of p, the pistachio t“). But no colors attached themselves to musical notes for him: they were all just noise.

Ricochetti, do any of you know the science of this? Can music appreciation be learned? 

There are 21 comments.

  1. Member

    Can music appreciation be learned?

    Only if you grew up in a household that watched the Ed Sullivan Show. If you don’t believe me, just ask Blue Yeti.

    • #1
    • February 21, 2013 at 2:42 am
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  2. Inactive

    The ultimate answer, I don’t know, but I always enjoyed this:

    Would an audience from Russia have responded the same way?

    • #2
    • February 21, 2013 at 2:55 am
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  3. Member

    I started playing the violin when I was 3, and lapsed in High School, while making a vain attempt at being “cool.” I’ve since started taking lessons again (at 31) and my teacher recently noted something about my ear. She said I have an excellent ear for pitch note to note, but I’m not as good with perfect pitch (meaning, if I somehow get off, I will play in tune until I hit an open string). She said that relative pitch is much much harder to learn, so she’s happy that this is what I already do well.

    I did Suzuki method for violin growing up. My mom would put a tape in each night when we (my sisters and I) went to sleep (we were different ages, so those were different tapes). At recital, everything is played by memory. Playing by ear is the focus of the method, and that has come out in my recent endeavors to continue learning. Opinions on Suzuki are mixed, but I am eternally grateful that my mom made us do it (although I wanted to: childhood idol was Itzhak Perlman). My teacher agrees that the most difficult training is done.

    • #3
    • February 21, 2013 at 3:24 am
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  4. Thatcher

    Music ‘appreciation’ can be learned. Music enjoyment is, I suspect, innate. Nabakov apparently lacked that.

    What music you enjoy is contingent on the music you already enjoy. The best music for anyone tends to be that somewhat similar to that already known, but with constrained surprises.

    Dissonance is more than just familiarity and such. A harmony is formed by a coincidence in the frequencies of the harmonics. C sounds good with G because the third harmonic of the former is almost identical to the second harmonic of the latter. The fourth harmonic of C (eg. 1046.5Hz for middle C) just about matches the third harmonic of F (1047.68Hz). The fifth harmonic of C is close-ish to the fourth harmonic of D.

    That’s in the modern tuning system of equal temperament (each tone is the twelfth root of two times the frequency of the semitone under it). Under just temperament, which lost out in the early 18th Century, those matches were pretty much exact, but only for some keys, while others sounded dreadful. You can blame that defeat on Bach’s ‘The Well Tempered Clavier’.

    • #4
    • February 21, 2013 at 4:23 am
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  5. Inactive

    I took 12 years of classical piano training starting at 5, and voice and choral music in high school and college. Later on, when I learned about how the brain works, I finally understood why certain components were challenging for me (memorization) and why other things (sight reading) came much more easily. 

    Several years ago, neurologist Oliver Sacks wrote a book called Musicophilia. He describes a variety of neurological cases that exhibit music related symptoms (increased interest but not talent, loss or change in ability, new abilities) and also mentions “seeing” music as colors. He also describes people who are “amusical,” who, like Nabakov, describe music as dissonant sounds. 

    If you’ve not read any of Sacks’ work (The Man Who Mistook his Wife for a Hat), they are fascinating and very accessible. 

    Ok, my book plus is over now : )

    • #5
    • February 21, 2013 at 4:33 am
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  6. Inactive

    I’m trying to google the source (unsuccessful at the moment), but I recall a study that claimed that when a music listener comes to recognize a musical pattern or sequence, the brain essentially rewards him by releasing a small amount of dopamine – the pleasure chemical. Spotting the pattern is the game, and winning the game releases the chemical.

    Anything chemical, of course, can go wrong. A thyroid condition, a head cold … anything that alters the chemical system can affect the behaviors that are based on it.

    It’s entirely possible, I think, that Nabokov could be one of those people who recognize the musical pattern but whose brain doesn’t reward him for it. The sounds coalesce in his head, but there’s a big [so-what?] about the whole exercise.

    • #6
    • February 21, 2013 at 4:41 am
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  7. Listener

    One of my fondest undergrad memories is of a “filler” class: Intro to Music Appreciation. The basics of the Western tradition with a little Eastern thrown in…took us up to 20th c. The professor was old school enough to reject “stunt art” but savvy enough to bring in current hits and play “Stop The Music” when we heard a musical technique (e.g., ostinato) we’d learned.

    There must be something to KC’s unlinked source. So long as I have an what’s going on — hey, that’s 12-tone — I’m rewarded. I may not like the piece … but I get that dopamine frisson.

    • #7
    • February 21, 2013 at 5:23 am
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  8. Contributor
    Stephen Dawson: Music ‘appreciation’ can be learned. Music enjoyment is, I suspect, innate. Nabakov apparently lacked that.



    Every toddler I’ve known will dance without being taught (and that’s a happy pill for adults – who can’t smile at a dancing toddler?).

    How much appreciation they have for music will vary as they grow, and I suspect those who are so smitten by it to study more will learn to appreciate it even more.

    • #8
    • February 21, 2013 at 5:29 am
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  9. Thatcher

    A lot of one’s ear for music is learned. My dad played a lot of classical music on our stereo, as well as a lot of band music and show tunes. Every Saturday, he would tune into the Met’s weekly opera broadcasts.

    There is though the matter of taste. I like the instrumental parts of opera, but the vocalists are another matter. If I had any desire to hear a 250+ lb. woman shrieking at me in Italian, I’d go back to the old neighborhood and punt a football into Mrs. Negroponte’s rosebushes. She’s gone to her reward in that Big Garden in the Sky, but back in the alleys there is undoubtedly an echo of “bambini marci” bouncing back and forth between the garages.

    • #9
    • February 21, 2013 at 6:13 am
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  10. Member

    A lot about music can be taught, so appreciation is an integral part of learning anything about music. I am a musician of sorts. I play violin, guitar, mandolin mostly self-taught – although that is a whole other debate . I always learned from others, either by lessons, listening an copying etc. I didn’t have a formal lesson regimen and was self motivated, let’s put it that way.

    There is something about music that is universal. Vibrations of the octave and mathematical relations within. There is the 12 note tempered scale, and the natural scale and dozens of others, and there are conventions that are learned within systems. It is a language and thus communication. If you don’t “like” a certain kind of music, you probably don’t understand it, you can’t appreciate the patterns. 

    However,I believe most people have a musical orientation. It may be a little like sexuality. I have a difficult time believing someone who says they like all kinds of music. Really? I don’t have room to go into why but I believe you have to dislike certain types of music in order to better appreciate other types.

    • #10
    • February 21, 2013 at 6:33 am
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  11. Member

    I once was sharing an event with a troupe of five medieval horn players. Sacbutts and precursors to modern trumpets trombones etc. They were all music scholars with degrees, the leader was the curator of the most extensive trumpet museum in the world. They would play fanfares that sounded bad – at first. Bad means “out of tune” here, but that is what an ordinary person would say. But what is out of tune? I started to enjoy their playing because it was out of tune in the same way. It sounded different, cutting and edgy. There was meat in some of those dissonant chords. I began to appreciate and anticipate those out of tune notes and gutsy chords. I’m sure plenty of people thought they needed lessons passing by their show.

    There are all kinds of conventions in music and there is fashion, even long-term fashion. 

    • #11
    • February 21, 2013 at 6:57 am
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  12. Inactive

    I recommend Daniel J. Levitin This Is Your Brain On Music.

    • #12
    • February 21, 2013 at 7:13 am
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  13. Member

    I’ve noticed that many good computer programmers are musicians, guitar players in particular. I’ve always thought that means there’s something about logical sequences that appeals to the brains of both programmers and musicians (not absolutely, of course, but commonly). Perhaps this is why frenetic jazz does not appeal to me: it’s the musician’s attempt to create a sound different from the usual progressions that are so pleasing, no matter how ubiquitous. It becomes more intellectual than sensual.

    Also, I seem to recall Christopher Hitchens saying something about novel writers having an ear for music, which he claimed not to have, at least not to the same degree, and that is why he wrote essays and reporting pieces but not novels.

    • #13
    • February 21, 2013 at 7:32 am
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  14. Inactive

    Thanks for the book recommendations, folks. I’m going to have some fun reading times ahead. 

    I have two sons with perfect pitch. A few years ago our family participated in a perfect pitch study by contributing blood to the researchers. I think they were looking for a genetic component to musical ability. Kind of duh, though. We all know there’s a genetic component, though it’s not just one gene apparently.

    Not surprisingly, my two perfect pitchers also have a much higher ability to hear the individual notes that make up a chord, to hear which vocal part in a chord is singing sharp or flat, to know immediately what chord is needed in accompanying a song, etc. They are very good at playing by ear and can memorize quickly, but had a hard time learning to sight read. One of them cannot live without music and the other one can take it or leave it. But the son that really loves music more than his brothers does not have perfect pitch. Go figure. I’ve noticed that as a singer and instrumentalist, I love music more as I learn it and get “inside” it. Makes sense.

    • #14
    • February 21, 2013 at 7:42 am
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  15. Member

    I don’t know the answer, but can share my experience. I am from a completely unmusical family. I have no talent (though I tortured a trumpet for one year). I can’t sing. I grew up listening to country music (some of which I still like).

    When I got in college, I remember hearing brief snatches of classical music, which fascinated me. From there, I bought classical records, then moved on to opera. I claim no sensitivity of soul, only that I love the sound of it. Pretty much everything I know about music is self-taught.

    Bottom line: I still can’t sing and can’t play, and I couldn’t read a score if you paid me. But I love music, and can usually tell the difference between the bad, the good, and the great. My experience teaches me that “music appreciation” begins with something innate to the person.

    • #15
    • February 21, 2013 at 7:54 am
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  16. Inactive

    Even dogs like music

    • #16
    • February 21, 2013 at 8:22 am
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  17. Member
    Jackal: The ultimate answer, I don’t know, but I always enjoyed this:

    Would an audience from Russia have responded the same way? · 5 hours ago

    Thanks for this wonderful link, and McFerrin does answer your question: he says he gets the same reaction from every audience with whom he performs.

    • #17
    • February 21, 2013 at 8:26 am
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  18. Coolidge

    I’m not sure the major/minor happy/sad relationship is as innate as it seems to us in the West. There are lots of societies where happy, energetic dance music is in a minor key. The human brain seems innately equipped to wire itself to appreciate music, but that wiring is affected by the kind of music it’s exposed to.

    Keep in mind that even a newborn infant has already been hearing music, and other things, for nine months.

    (EDIT: Well, OK, something less than nine months. I’d have to look up when the ears form.)

    • #18
    • February 21, 2013 at 8:50 am
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  19. Inactive

    Almost all Spirituals are done on the pentatonic scale (the scale McFerrin uses in his delightful demo.) That’s the scale you get if you play only the black keys on the piano. Try it–you can plunk out the tune of any Spiritual on the black keys. This is also true for Amazing Grace. John Newton wrote the hymn. He was in need of grace because he was involved with the Atlantic slave trade before repenting and becoming a clergyman. The theory is that he learned the tune from the slaves in the galley during his days as a slave trader. Not sure if this is true– he’s only known to have written the words. I like to think that’s the source of the tune though. 

    • #19
    • February 21, 2013 at 9:02 am
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  20. Member
    Judith Levy, Ed.: 

    …. The study says that familiarity renders chord patterns less dissonant, which may be true, but then infers that less dissonant means more enjoyable. Can that leap be made?

    No, it can’t.

    Sometimes people want dissonance. It’s similar to seeking out sad or frightening movies. These are not happy emotions, so why would we want them? One reason is because life is not always happy, and we appreciate stories which reflect our own experiences, not just ideals. Another reason is because we ourselves are dissonant (corrupt) and do not always like what is beautiful.

    Also, our experiences shape what we perceive as dissonance. Many older people dislike the electronic distortion of guitars but don’t even recognize the natural distortion of brass instruments, like trumpets and tubas, as such.

    • #20
    • February 21, 2013 at 9:07 am
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  21. Inactive
    Leslie Watkins: I’ve noticed that many good computer programmers are musicians, guitar players in particular. I’ve always thought that means there’s something about logical sequences that appeals to the brains of both programmers and musicians (not absolutely, of course, but commonly).

    A number of people have noticed the correlation between computer programming and music–most notably Donald Knuth, author of The Art of Computer Programming and an accomplished organist. The field of computer music is yet another marvel from the legendary Bell Labs (see this New York Times blog about Max Matthews).

    I think the correlation–and the reason that musical ability seems innate, is because the ability to use logic, and think in abstraction, is closely related to intelligence. You “get” how a sequence of chords will resolve–or you don’t–in the same way that you “get” object-orientation or the C pointer. Or you don’t.

    How close is the relationship? Go ’round the room with your killer dream team of coders–and ask who has public performance experience (even better, paid performance experience). You’ll be surprised at how many do–and how embarrassed the non-musicians are.

    • #21
    • February 21, 2013 at 10:52 am
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