Twenty years ago, a pair of psychologists hooked up a shoe to a computer. They were trying to teach it to tap in time with a national anthem.
However, the job was proving much tougher than anticipated. Just moving to beat-dominated music, they found, required a grasp of tonal organisation and musical structure that seemed beyond the reach of an ordinary person without special training. But how could that be? Any partygoer can fake a smile, reach for a cheese cube and tap her heel to an unfamiliar song without so much as a thought. Yet when the guy she’s been chatting with tells her that he’s a musician, she might reply: ‘Music? I don’t know anything about that.’
Maybe you’ve heard a variation on this theme: ‘I can’t carry a tune to save my life.’ Or: ‘I don’t have a musical bone in my body.’ Most of us end up making music publicly just a few times a year, when it’s someone’s birthday and the cake comes out.
Privately, it’s a different story – we belt out tunes in the shower and create elaborate rhythm tracks on our steering wheel. But when we think about musical expertise, we tend to imagine professionals who specialise in performance, people we’d pay to hear. As for the rest of us, our bumbling, private efforts — rather than illustrating that we share an irresistible impulse to make music — seem only to demonstrate that we lack some essential musical capacity.
But the more psychologists investigate musicality, the more it seems that nearly all of us are musical experts, in quite a startling sense. The difference between a virtuoso performer and an ordinary music fan is much smaller than the gulf between that fan and someone with no musical knowledge at all. What’s more, a lot of the most interesting and substantial elements of musicality are things that we (nearly) all share. We aren’t talking about instinctive, inborn universals here.
Our musical knowledge is learned, the product of long experience; maybe not years spent over an instrument, but a lifetime spent absorbing music from the open window of every passing car.
So why don’t we realise how much we know? And what does that hidden mass of knowledge tell us about the nature of music itself? The answers to these questions are just starting to fall into place.
The first is relatively simple. Much of our knowledge about music is implicit: it only emerges in behaviours that seem effortless, like clapping along to a beat or experiencing chills at the entry of a certain chord. And while we might not give a thought to the hidden cognitions that made these feats possible, psychologists and neuroscientists have begun to peek under the hood to discover just how much expertise these basic skills rely on.
What they are discovering is that musicality emerges in ways that parallel the development of language. In particular, the capacity to respond to music and the ability to learn language rest upon an amazing piece of statistical machinery, one that keeps whirring away in the background of our minds, hidden from view.
Consider the situation of infants learning to segment the speech stream – that is, learning to break up the continuous babble around them into individual words. You can’t ask babies if they know where one word stops and a new one begins, but you can see this knowledge emerge in their responses to the world around them. They might, for example, start to shake their heads when you ask if they’d like squash.
To investigate how this kind of verbal knowledge takes shape, in 1996 the psychologists Jenny Saffran, Richard Aslin and Elissa Newport, then all at the University of Rochester in New York, came up with an ingenious experiment.
They played infants strings of nonsense syllables – sound-sequences such as bidakupado. This stream of syllables was organised according to strict rules: da followed bi 100 per cent of the time, for example, but pa followed ku only a third of the time. These low-probability transitions were the only boundaries between ‘words’. There were no pauses or other distinguishing features to demarcate the units of sound.
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