A Study in Musical Perception: Summary of Wolpert’s Research

by F.

OK, here are two very short (20 second) clips of Ave Maria used in a study of musical perception. Listen to the first, then listen to the second. Which one did you like more? Be honest. Or, did you not notice any difference?

Jot your answer down.

OK, now the big question: Is there any difference? Is one more beautiful to you than the other? It probably depends on whether you are a musician. Cognitive Daily (a wonderful cog psych blog) has a summary of a paper by Rita Wolpert(viz., Wolpert, R.S. (2000). Attention to key in a nondirected music listening task: Musicians vs. nonmusicians. Music Perception, 18(2), 225-230):

If you’re a typical nonmusician, you will probably notice some sort of difference between the two excerpts. Maybe one seems to be played at a different tempo, or with different instrumentation, or is a bit longer or shorter. You probably won’t think either clip sounds unpleasant, and you might not notice any differences at all.


If you are a professional musician, on the other hand, you may find the second clip so appalling that you can’t bring yourself to listen to the entire 20 seconds. You might believe it to be some kind of a musical joke, or wonder how the musicians can go on playing in such cacophony.

See the whole McChicken here. Note, though, that the author of the summary of Cognitive Daily suggests that the difference is explained by “talent.” But this is speculation. It could just as easily be learned given that the musicians in the study were professionals.