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.
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