Sunday, March 29, 2009

How well would you do as an expert?

In the Netherlands (and I’m sure there are versions of it in the UK and the US as well) there is a weekly radio show containing a returning item in which music experts are asked to compare and judge two or three CD recordings of the same piece, without knowing who the musicians are. They have to guess the performers and describe why they do (or don’t) like that particular performance.

How well would you do in such a test? The common hypothesis is that experts do this much better, e.g. under the assumption that they are more sensitive in their listening skills. But do experts indeed hear more detali and more nuances when compared to a 'common listener'? Or do they just have more terminology available to verbalize these differences?

Two years ago our group did a large-scale online listening experiment with a similar task. Participants were asked to compare several pairs of recordings of well-known musicians. One of the recordings was taken directly from a CD, but the other was originally performed at another tempo (faster or slower) and then scaled to be similar in tempo to the former recording. The task was to judge which recording was real and which one was manipulated, by focusing on the timing used by the performer.

To give you an idea of the difficulty of the task, below an example.

(See answer at the bottom.)

The results were recently published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology, with a surprising outcome: the judgments seem to be largely influenced by exposure to music (listening a lot to one’s favorite music) and not (at all) by the level of expertise (amount of formal musical training). One seems to learn a lot by simply listening.

ResearchBlogging.orgHoning, H., & Ladinig, O. (2009). Exposure influences expressive timing judgments in music. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Human Perception and Performance, 35 (1), 281-288 DOI: 10.1037/a0012732

* The first recording is the original. It is Glenn Gould performing English Suite No. 4 by J.S. Bach. The second recording is Sviatoslav Richter performing the same piece. However, this recording was sped up from 70 to 87 bpm making his use of tempo rubato 'unnatural'.


  1. That could explain why so many outstanding musicians and performers are always telling young musicians to listen. Doesn't really matter what style of music you want to play, but you should be listening to that style a lot.

    The only reason I could tell the second recording was manipulated was because the ornaments sounded very unnatural and strange.


  2. Really surprising poll result. I suspect it might be due to precipitous votes made before listening to the second track. Unlike Christopher, I didn't detect anything odd about the ornaments in the second piece; it was just the random accelerandi and ritardandi that stuck out.

  3. Amazing, my son of 12 years old (who doesn't listen to classical music that much) choose the right one! And I, his mother, was wrong, and I do listen to classical muscic a lot :) Shows I'm really a terrible listener :D