How Does Music Training Influence Our Perception Of And Focus Of Attention When Listening To Music?

18 Aug

Our auditory perception does not provide an objective reflection of a musical work, but rather synthesizes a subjective interpretation that is malleable to culture, music training, and listening-habits.  Because a piece of music is comprised of melodic, rhythmic, and timbre elements (more information that one can attend to simultaneously), researchers have wondered what influences the focus of attention and the perception of music between groups of listeners.  For example, differences in listening abilities have been identified between music majors (greater emphasis on timbre) and non-music majors (greater emphasis on melody and dynamics) (Geringer & Madsen, 1995/1996; Madsen & Geringer, 1990).  Additionally, the amount of musical training has been shown to affect the perception of music.  One study demonstrated that listeners with more musical training were able to detect tempo decreases more accurately than tempo increases (Sheldon & Gregory, 1997) and focused more on the harmonic components of a selected piece of music than those with less musical training (Williams, 2005).

Rebecca Macleod, John Geringer, and Laurie Scott decided to investigate these differences between musically active high-school and university students.  In the study, participants listened to four orchestral excerpts (two that were slow/soft and two that were fast/loud).  Three versions of each performance were provided (high-school performance, university performance, and professional performance), as a means to evaluate how students distinguished the aesthetic quality of a performance.  Students then used two 7-point rating scales for 12 unique stimuli that addressed “technical skill” (performance accuracy and intonation), and “musicality” (the expressive and stylish qualities of a performance).

Several noticeable differences in auditory attention and perception arose between the university and high-school students.  In general, university students referenced a wider breadth of musical characteristics that often reflected the nature of the listening examples compared to the high-school students.  These differences become apparent when comparing the critiques of the slow/soft and loud/fast excerpts:  for the slow/soft passages, university students often emphasized intonation as a prevailing factor in their ratings and as a way to discern artistic quality between the three performances.  In comparison, high-school students predominately cited dynamics as the prevailing factor behind their criticism.  Interestedly, both the university and high-school  students agreed that dynamics were the most salient characteristic of the fast/loud passages!  The reason behind the contrasting opinions regarding the slow/soft excerpts but not the fast/loud passages might correspond to the function of intonation.  The slow/soft passage make the discernment of intonation more conspicuous, and thus the individuals with greater musical training, seem to attend to these qualities over dynamics.

It is evident that these groups of students experience music differently (as the researchers argue, a reflection of their musical training) but what can we learn from their descriptions?  Macleod, Gerginger, and Scott advocate that we should teach music from the bottom-up, by first understanding how our students are listening to music and catering to these abilities.  For instance, by demonstrating correct intonation with soft/slow, music educators might facilitate student comprehension.  Furthermore, since dynamics were most attributed to the fast/loud excerpts, music educators might use similar passages to instruct dynamics and tempo.  The researchers note that these teaching practices might not be universally applicable: the student participants were all engaged with music-education (either a high-school orchestra, summer music camp, or music degree program) that focused on western classical music.  Thus the familiarity with this style, might distort the results (for instance, what musical elements would listeners of Indian Raga cite in their analytical surveys?).  Regardless, at least those enrolled in western music programs might benefit from these teaching strategies.

MaCleod, R.B., Geringer, J.M., & Scott, L. (2009). A descriptive study of high school and university students’ focus of attention in fast and slow orchestral excerpts. International Journal of Musc Education, 27, 220-233.

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One Response to “How Does Music Training Influence Our Perception Of And Focus Of Attention When Listening To Music?”

  1. Travis September 6, 2010 at 9:20 pm #

    Love this picture.

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