Learning To Listen and Listening To Learn: Why Listening Might Be The New Practice

15 Jul

How do we become musical experts?  Is it through long-hours of monotonous practice, or perhaps through more a passive form of acquisition?  Much research suggests that expertise, both in our ability to recognize a refined musical performance or create a captivating performance, is often attributed to the amount of practice.  However, a study conducted by Henkjan Honing and Olivia Ladinig, provides evidence suggesting that actively listening to music might enable listeners to “bypass” formal musical training in order to become musically competent.  Honing and Ladinig investigated whether the articulation and expression of a musical performance is recognized by the musically-acquainted to a finer degree in comparison to the lay-men.  The research duo selected one aspect of expression, expressive timing, as the focal point for this inquisition.  Expressive Timing is the subtle deviation made by the performer that strays from the norm tempo of a song or piece (in classical music we might associate these deviations as tempo rubato while in other genres of music we might associate these deviations with delays or anticipations of the piece’s tempo).

The study asked participants to listen to two performances of the same, all-instrumental composition (the musical selections were taken from classical, rock, and jazz genres).   One of the performances in the pair was recorded at a slower or faster tempo and then with edited to match the tempo of its sister performance.   Thus, the two “performances” were played back at the same tempo, but with one manipulated to match the tempo of the other.  The performances were selected from CD commercial recordings, and edited using software that kept both the quality and timbre intact even after undergoing the tempo shift.  The participant’s objective was too identify which out of the pair was the non-tempo transformed piece.

During analysis, the group of participants were separated into three categories of musical expertise (non-musician, semi-musicians, expert musicians)  and exposure (classical, jazz, rock genres).  Across these categories, the majority of the participants correctly identified the  non-tempo transformed composition.  Further analysis revealed that a participant’s familiarity with a specific genre of music, resulted in more accurate determinations of the non-tempo transformed composition.  This phenomenon seemed to be independent from the level of musical expertise suggesting that exposure to a certain archetype of music, might increase increase one’s musical competence.  It need be mentioned that despite the evident role of exposure on musical competency, formal musical training plays an indispensable role in the formation of musical competence — such that, it is the interplay of both exposure and expertise that provides an individual with the most promising capacity for musical competence.  Therefore, actively listening to a select style of music might might rival the perspectives gained from formal music training, and allow the musically-unacquainted to become proficient at identifying certain musical embellishments.  However, music competency could be amplified with the addition of formal music training.

The data from this research demonstrates another example how cultural and environmental factors might influence our musical abilities (for another example on how culture effects our musical experiences, check out Soley and Hannon’s study on musical preference in infants). What this data insinuates, is that our listening habits might be as critical, if not equally instrumental, to music development as formal training.  More research will need to be conducted to determine if just solely listening to music actually affects performance ability to the degree of formal music training.  Yet at the very least, this study tells us that frequent exposure to a specific music affects our perception of said music.  Tired of practicing your scales?  Then pick up your favorite or a new recording, and give it a thorough listen!

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


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