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Psychology of music: Cognition · Ability · Training · Emotion

Musical aptitude (i.e. having a fine ear for music) is the ability to intuitively learn or appreciate music, and especially to distinguish off-key and off-pitch music.

Music is ancient and one of the most special characteristics of humans[citation needed]. Some observations suggest that the ability to appreciate and to understand music does not require any musical training.[citation needed] Since we can see octave-based scales or preference of consonance over dissonance in every single type of music in every human culture, this could be considered to be evidence of innateness of music.[1] The rules of music have arisen independently in every human culture, and some of them also apply to the music perception of non-human species. This tells us that the rules have their basis in brain rather than in culture. Embryology researches have showed that basic auditory abilities, such as pitch discrimination and more complex capabilities like melody recognition, are already present in the early stages of development.[2]

In music, tonal memory is the ability to recall or produce a previously sounded tone with voice or an instrument. Tonal memory assists with staying in tune and may be developed through ear training. Extensive tonal memory may be recognized as an indication of potential compositional ability.[3]

Most of the music aptitude or talent described today is tonal memory, time discrimination and pitch discrimination.

History of musical aptitude researches and findings

There is a long debate on whether one is born with a fine ear for music or whether one develops it over time by practice and training.[4] Studies have shown that people with musical talent have certain regions of the brain more developed than those of other people. Recent scientific studies suggest that experience, and not genetics, affects musicians' brain responses and development. [5] [6]

The researches about musical aptitude have been focused on the two opposite edges of the musical abilities which are 'Absolute pitch(AP)' and Tone deafness (Amusia).

Absolute pitch

Main article: Absolute pitch

Absolute pitch (or AP) is defined as an ability to effortlessly name a note or a group of notes without comparing it with any external reference tone when the notes are sounded. People with perfect pitch can produce the note in instrument or via voice when it is told.[7]

In 1988 Profita and Bidder studied 35 persons with perfect pitch, from 19 families, with a questionnaire that is about note-recognition capacity and musical exposure and training. Profita and Bidder (1991) concluded that there was a strong correlation between the occurrence of perfect pitch and learning disabilities.[8]

By surveying more than 600 musicians in music conservatories, training programs, and orchestras, Baharloo et al. (1998) attempted to understand the contributions of genetic and early music training in development of absolute pitch. Early musical training seemed to be important but not sufficient for the development of absolute pitch. Forty percent of musicians who had begun training at 4 years of age or younger reported absolute pitch, whereas only 3% of who had begun training at or after 9 years of age did so. Self-reported AP possessors reported 4 times more AP possessors in their families than non-AP possessors. These data suggested that early musical training and genetic basis is needed for the development of AP.[9]

Gregersen et al. (1999) made a survey of 2,707 music students at music conservatories and at the university and college music programs in the U.S. They also showed there is a strong correlation between the AP and the students in these schools whose ethnic backgrounds are Asian. This increased the possibility that AP is more common in Asian students in general. In another study, they found that Asian students had 32.1% prevalence compared to all other ethnic groups combined 7%.[10]

For the AP group as a whole, the mean age of starting musical activities was 5.4 +/- 2.8 years, whereas for the non-AP group the mean age was 7.9 +/- 13.2 years (P less than 0.0001). This was observed for both Asian and non-Asian students.

Tone deafness

Main article: Tone deafness

Tone deafness is defined as lack of relative pitch, or the inability to differentiate between notes or inability to produce a note with/without a reference note. Being tone deaf is having difficulty or being unable to correctly hear relative differences between notes. People with amusia usually cannot produce a note when they hear even with a reference note.[11]

Kalmus (1949) studied tune deafness in a group of students at University College in London. He found two kind of distribution in investigations, with frequent segregation in families and siblings. He suggested this might be caused by a unit gene substitution, possibly a dominant. Kalmus and Fry (1980) used the distorted tunes test in family studies. Segregation suggesting an autosomal dominant trait with imperfect penetrance' was found[12]

See also


  1. Genome-wide linkage scan for loci of musical aptitude in Finnish families: evidence for a major locus at 4q22.K Pulli, K Karma, R Norio, P Sistonen, H H H Göring and I Järvelä J. Med. Genet. 2008;45;451-456; originally published online 18 Apr 2008; DOI:10.1136/jmg.2007.056366
  2. Trehub SE, Hannon EE. Infant music perception: Domain-general or domain-specific mechanisms? Cognition 2005;100:73–99
  3. Gorow, Ron (2002). Hearing and Writing Music: Professional Training for Today's Musician (2nd Edition)
  4. The Cambridge handbook of expertise and expert performance By Karl Anders Ericsson, p.457
  7. Ward, W.D. (1998). "Absolute Pitch". in D. Deutsch (Ed.). The Psychology of Music (Second Edition). San Diego: Academic Press. pp. 265–298
  8. Profita, J.; Bidder, T. G. : Perfect pitch. Am. J. Med. Genet. 29: 763-771, 1988. PubMed ID : 3400722
  9. Baharloo, S.; Johnston, P. A.; Service, S. K.; Gitschier, J.; Freimer, N. B. : Absolute pitch: an approach for identification of genetic and nongenetic components. Am. J. Hum. Genet. 62: 224-231, 1998.
  10. Gregersen, P. K.; Kowalsky, E.; Kohn, N.; Marvin, E. W. : Absolute pitch: prevalence, ethnic variation, and estimation of the genetic component. (Letter) Am. J. Hum. Genet. 65: 911-913, 1999
  12. On tune deafness (dysmelodia): frequency, development, genetics and musical background. Ann. Hum. Genet. 43: 369-382, 1980

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