By Ricky O’Bannon
robannon@bsomusic.org

A few years ago, I made what I thought was a harmless comment at a concert to a former dance critic: I don’t know anything about dance.

I’ve never studied dance, and I would struggle to identify a pirouette from a pop and lock. It’s something I rarely even participate in save for weddings that offer free liquid courage. And yet how that critic responded to my statement has stuck with me.

“By being a human being on this earth, you know something about dance,” she said. “You’ve used your eyes your entire life to interpret movement, so trust what they tell you.”

It’s a lesson I try to remember and share with friends who attend an orchestra concert who are afraid they need at least four years of music school before they can enjoy what they hear — much less understand it or have an opinion. Generally speaking, the layman listener knows more than they think they do.

A recent study by researchers in Germany and Belgium looked to test that premise by comparing just how well lay listeners and professional musicians could judge a musical performance. Pauline Larrouy-Maestri, David Magis, Matthias Grabenhorst and Dominique Morsomme published a study at the online journal PLOS ONE, which asked both music experts and listeners with no musical training to score 166 performances of the song “Happy Birthday” with French lyrics on a scale of 1 to 9 based on pitch interval, musical contouring and tonality modulations.

Researchers found that while there was less variation in the scoring by expert listeners, the non-experts as a group were reliable judges of the musical performance. They were more influenced by pitch interval (whether performers accurately judged the distance between each note) than expert judges who reacted more to contouring and tonality modulations (whether a performer held the correct pitch for its duration), but researchers said they proved to be consistent and objective judges of a simple vocal melody, offering up scores very similar to their professional counterparts.

Oddly enough, when a performance was not great, the non-expert listeners tended to be harsher judges than the experts. The performances were by amateur singers, so researchers theorized that expert judges who normally evaluate other professional musicians being more forgiving to amateur singers.

Were the music more complex or unfamiliar, researchers suggested that there would likely be a more significant difference in the evaluation of expert and non-expert listeners. But for evaluating simple vocal melodies, researchers believe —based on their own and previous studies — that an average lay listener has more training than they might realize.

“We are all exposed to the music of our specific culture and are able to implicitly learn a system of musical rules,” they wrote.

Interestingly, researchers compared the way children learn a set of musical rules and conventions to the way they learn any spoken language. Young children aren’t taught formal rules of language until they are older, but they absorb patterns in what they hear and are able to detect speech that violates those formulas.

“Even young children acquire musical knowledge, which allows them to understand musical structure and to develop melodic expectations,” the paper states. “Despite an absence of formal training in music, non-musicians are sensitive to the musical rules of their culture, to the timbre of the vocal instrument itself, which qualifies layman listeners as ‘experienced listeners.’”

The study looks only at simple, vocal melodies, but it underlies a greater truth about music: We might know more than we realize. There is undeniable value in an expert’s critical ear that can guide and heighten the experience for a lay listener, but even with more complex music, our ear has a way of recognizing logic and patterns with repeat exposure. Our ear is smarter than we think.