Psychologist Bruno Gingras on how we perceive music, reasons for severe tone-deafness, and why some of us are more musical than others

faq | October 11, 2016

Similar to IQ or emotional intelligence, musical sophistication is defined as a psychometric concept; that is, it aims to objectively measure a skill, aptitude, or personality trait. Specifically, musical sophistication refers to musical skills, expertise, and achievements but also to musical understanding and appreciation. Thus, it is a multifaceted concept that captures different forms of engagement with music, and individuals may vary in their level of sophistication on these different facets. For example, some people may be very good at hearing the difference between two pitches close in frequency (pitch height), but these same people may display poor or limited musical creativity.

History of Research

The first attempts to define “musicality”, a general term used to define musical talent and sensitivity, date back to 19th-century Germany (Michaelis) and Austria (Billroth). In the early 20th-­century, a more scientific approach was introduced in the United States by Carl Seashore, who focused on the objective measurement of musical aptitudes, such as pitch and rhythm discrimination. Since then, many tests have been developed, generally following Seashore’s approach. Although these musical aptitude tests are now widely used and spurred major developments in research on musical ability, they are not well-­suited to the evaluation of broader aspects of musicality, including creativity and appreciation.



The term “musical sophistication” was introduced by Joy Ollen 2006, a researcher then working at Ohio State University. Ollen sought to develop a simple method to assess general musicality (not just musical aptitude) but felt that simply using the number of years of musical training as a measure of musicality was inadequate, as people with no formal training can display a high level of musical ability. Therefore, she developed a “Musical Sophistication Index” in an attempt to solve this issue. Ollen’s concept of musical sophistication drew on the work of Susan Hallam, a professor at University College London, who suggested that evaluating musical ability should go beyond basic skills such as pitch or rhythm perception and include the capacity to understand and appreciate music as well as the ability to compose or improvise. However, one disadvantage of Ollen’s Musical Sophistication Index is that it relies on an evaluation by a music expert, which makes it less suitable for people with no musical training, as well as somewhat subjective and difficult to administer on a large scale.

Testing for Musicality

Beginning with Seashore, several tests have been developed to attempt to objectively measure musical aptitudes, such as the ability to detect small differences between two melodies or rhythmic patterns that are almost identical. Among older tests, we find Wing’s Standardized Tests of Musical Intelligence and Gordon’s Music Aptitude Profile. Modern tests, which can generally be completed online in less than 20 minutes, include the Profile of Music Perception Skills, the Musical Ear Test, and the Swedish Musical Discrimination Test.

However, these tests tend to ignore other facets of musicality, such as musical creativity, music appreciation, emotional responsiveness to music, and so on. Ollen’s questionnaire, and more recently, the Goldsmiths Musical Sophistication Index, or Gold-­MSI, were developed to solve this problem (one advantage of the Gold-­MSI is that it combines the objective measurement of musical aptitudes with a self-­report questionnaire assessing other facets of musicality). Other questionnaires focus on specific aspects, such as the Musical Engagement Questionnaire or the Barcelona Music Reward Questionnaire, which measures how much pleasure people experience when engaging in musical activities.

The Gold-­MSI test

Around 2010, a team of researchers at Goldsmiths (London, UK), comprising Daniel Müllensiefen, Lauren Stewart, Jason Musil, and myself, decided to develop a self-­report questionnaire to evaluate musical sophistication and to pair it with a short battery of tests of musical ability. This became the Gold-­MSI, which is now widely used by music cognition researchers. We also enjoyed a fruitful collaboration with BBC Lab UK, who adapted the Gold-­MSI for their How musical are you? Online test, which was taken by more than 140,000 participants. This provided us with an extremely large sample with which to compare participants’ responses, enabling us to obtain accurate population norms. The Gold-­MSI has now been translated and validated in German, and versions of the questionnaire are also available in other languages.

Before the development of the Gold-­MSI, I used the number of years of musical training as a quick approximation to assess people’s degree of musical sophistication, but I now consider it more accurate to ask participants to complete a survey such as the Gold-­MSI questionnaire. Ideally, we would like participants to complete both the questionnaire and a short battery of musical aptitude tests, but time constraints often prevent us from doing so. If we invite a participant to come to the laboratory for a one-­hour experiment, we do not want to take 25 minutes to evaluate their musical sophistication unless it is an extremely important aspect of the research question. For most purposes, completing the questionnaire is sufficient. Of course, if the research focus is specifically on perceptual abilities involving, for instance, pitch discrimination, then it makes sense to also obtain participants’ scores on a musical aptitude test.

Biological Factors of Musicality

As a starting point, historical evidence alone suggests that some aspects of musicality appear to be strongly determined by heredity. One only needs to bring to mind the Bach family, which counted more than fifty known musicians and composers spanning several generations. If we look for scientific evidence, we can use twin studies, which involve comparing the degree of similarity of identical twins versus non-­identical twins on a given physical or psychological trait, to evaluate the relative contribution of genetic versus environmental factors.

Neuroscientist Mahzarin Banaji on objective music perception, failing at assessing people, and arranged marriages
One of the first twin studies on music aptitude was conducted by Drayna and colleagues, who showed in 2001 that the ability to recognize wrong notes in a melody (which is related to the ability to discriminate between pitch intervals) is 70 to 80% heritable, meaning that at least 70% of the variance is determined by hereditary factors. More recent studies found similar results, although it seems that hereditary influences are stronger for pitch perception than for rhythm perception.

Perhaps not surprisingly, there is a positive correlation between IQ and musical aptitude: A recent study by Mosing and colleagues found that, in a sample of more than 10,000 Swedish twins, hereditary influences shared between musical aptitude and intelligence explained between 32 and 49% of the variance in the scores obtained on the Swedish Musical Discrimination Test. Moreover, Mosing and colleagues found that our genetic makeup also affects our motivation to practice a musical instrument, with the time spent practicing showing a heritability of 40 to 70%.

Other researchers have sought to identify specific genes associated with musicality, but so far, the results are inconclusive and difficult to replicate, although there is some evidence that genes play a role in the development of the nervous system, and in some cases, the auditory pathway, may be linked to musical aptitude.

Research by Gordon (the author of the Music Aptitude Profile) and others shows that basic musical aptitudes, such as pitch and rhythm discrimination, seem to stabilize around ten years of age, suggesting that, although later music training may increase musical knowledge and sophistication, it has little effect on basic perceptual skills. Again, this reinforces the view that our musicality is largely influenced by our biological makeup. Having said that, it is important to distinguish between musical aptitude and musical expertise, which we find, for instance, in professional performers. Clearly, no one achieves an elite level of performance without extensive practice: research by Ericsson and colleagues shows that thousands of hours of practice are necessary to become a world-­class musician. But, as mentioned above, the motivation to practice long hours is itself partially under genetic control…

Music and Emotions

Although some scholars are still debating whether music induces emotions in us (they argue that we only recognize the emotions expressed by the music), accumulating evidence indicates that music can indeed elicit emotions in listeners. There are several mechanisms by which musical emotions are induced. Some, such as memory associations (for instance, a song that was playing in the background when a couple met for the first time might become “their song”) or emotional contagion (the listener may be influenced by the gestures and reactions of other people surrounding him/her, including the performers) are independent of the particular acoustical and musical features of a piece. Other emotion induction mechanisms are linked to these features. These include basic acoustic cues such as sound intensity (loudness) and tempo (speed), with loud and/or fast music being felt as more arousing than slow and/or soft music, as well as culturally-­determined cues, such as the link between major mode and happiness and minor mode and sadness commonly found in Western music.

As we can see, the mechanisms determining our emotional reactions to music are fairly complex and may vary from person to person, depending on their cultural background but also on their individual memories and associations with a piece. In general, arousal levels are easier to predict since they are mostly determined by basic, biologically relevant cues: a very loud sound may indicate a danger or at least an event involving a lot of kinetic energy. Thus, it is not surprising that it can activate our sympathetic nervous system (associated with the “fight-­or-­flight” response), which we then perceive as increased arousal. Because this type of response is fast and mostly involuntary, any type of sound can elicit it, including loud or fast music. On the other hand, except for some widely-­accepted associations such as major mode and happiness, pleasantness is more difficult to predict, probably because it is determined to a larger extent by individual and cultural factors.

Disorders of music perception

Congenital amusia, colloquially known as tone-­deafness, is a lifelong condition found in about 3 % of the population. It is characterized by a deficiency in pitch perception, which affects the ability to detect wrong notes in a melody but also subtle speech intonations (for instance, in tone languages), and often manifests itself in difficulties with recognizing familiar songs and singing in tune. Rhythm perception and production are generally unaffected, except in some rare cases. Congenital amusia appears to have a biological basis, as some studies have reported brain abnormalities in the right auditory and inferior frontal cortex, but the causes of this neurodevelopmental disorder are still unclear. Individuals suffering from congenital amusia do not differ from healthy individuals in other respects, except for the fact that many of them tend not to enjoy musical activities.

Recently, another condition related to musical sophistication was discovered. Using the Barcelona Music Reward Questionnaire, Mas-­Herrero, and colleagues found that a small percentage of the population does not find music enjoyable, even though these people are not depressed, enjoy other rewarding activities, and have normal perceptual abilities. This condition was named musical anhedonia, corresponding to an inability to experience pleasure when engaging in musical activities.

Latest Research

Currently, two major areas of research in the field are 1) the genetic basis of musicality and 2) links between musical sophistication and personality traits. The flourishing of these two research fields is due to two factors: first, the recent development of online musical aptitude tests that can be completed at home in less than 20 minutes has enabled researchers to study much larger population samples than was previously possible, which is crucial for both genetic and large-­scale personality studies. Second, in the case of genetics, technological advances in genotyping and sequencing have made it possible to conduct large-­scale studies at relatively low cost.

On the topic of musical sophistication and personality traits, several researchers have found that, among the personality dimensions associated with the so-­called “Big Five” model, Openness was positively correlated with both self-­reported musical sophistication and musical aptitude test scores. Recently, Greenberg and colleagues reported that only the Aesthetics facet of the Openness dimension was consistently linked to musical sophistication. Greenberg and colleagues have also shown that people’s self-­reported personality traits predict their preferences for specific musical attributes, such as the degree of arousal and pleasantness induced by a musical piece.

In the last few years, I have been working on developing the use of pupillometry (the measurement of pupil size) for research on music emotions. We have found that the magnitude of the pupillary dilation is a good predictor of the subjective arousal experienced by music listeners.

New research finds that emotional content of the music and listeners’ personal involvement with music influence pupil dilation during listening
Interestingly, we also found a correlation between the size of the pupillary dilation and the self-­reported importance of music in participants’ lives, which shows an association between people’s psychophysiological responses and their degree of musical engagement. This finding links to some of the topics we have been discussing here, such as musical sophistication, musical anhedonia, and the biological component of musicality. At the moment, I am expanding on that topic by examining how pupillary dilation is linked to specific musical attributes or events.

I also recently began a collaboration with Marcel Zentner, the author of the Profile of Music Perception Skills, in an effort to develop a shorter version of this test while also aiming to capture broader aspects of musical appreciation. At the same time, I continue to investigate the biological basis of musicality on a larger scale, including, for instance, studying potential music precursors (“proto-­musical behaviors”) in some animal species.

Current Issues and future perspectives

The first issue remains the development of unbiased measures of musical sophistication. Although a lot of progress has been made in the past few years, much remains to be done. For instance, most tests are still based on Western stylistic conventions. Ideally, measures of musical sophistication should strive to be, as much as possible, culture-­neutral, as has been achieved for instance with modern IQ tests.

A second issue is that musical aptitude tests typically follow what is called an “atomistic approach”, reducing music to a series of individual components such as pitch, rhythm, or timbre. Although this approach is convenient from a practical standpoint and has proven fruitful, the resulting measures often have little in common with actual music. It would be nice to develop tests measuring aptitudes that are closer to “real-­world” musicality. However, it is challenging to keep the tests short, objective, and culturally unbiased while at the same time making them more “musical”, so more work remains to be done in that area.

Looking at the broader picture, the next major developments in this field are expected to occur in the area of the genetic and biological bases of musicality. This area has flourished tremendously in the last decade, and the latest reports suggest that we are only a few years away from being able to pinpoint specific genetic pathways linked with a particular musical ability, such as pitch or rhythm perception. Concurrently, large-­scale studies involving thousands of participants are becoming increasingly common, and these will enable major findings linking specific facets of musical sophistication with personality traits, in addition to helping us disentangle the relative contribution of “nature” versus “nurture” in the development of musical ability.

Assistant Professor, Institute of Psychology, University of Innsbruck, Austria
Did you like it? Share it with your friends!
Published items
To be published soon