6 Further WCM delusions

6.2 You need to know about music to appreciate it


This belief works well for musicology, needless to say. If you need knowledge to appreciate music then, given that music is valued right across the planet, the people who can tell you about it are going to seem quite important. If in practice they don’t seem that important (and surely they don’t) then the maxim looks a little shaky. It should also mean that the most knowledgeable have the most intense musical experiences. I’ve known a lot of musicologists and music theorists, and I have to say that I’ve not noticed this seeming to be so. If anything, I hear more passionate enthusiasm about musical experiences from people who know rather little but love to listen. One can get a sense of this from reading Alf Gabrielsson’s book, Strong Experiences with Music, which collects testimony from almost 1000 individuals who were asked to describe occasions on which they had had particularly memorable musical experiences. It is an amazing collection, endlessly inspiring in reminding one of the overwhelming power of all kinds of music over humans’ emotional states. Gabrielsson concludes that

On the whole, there are no major differences between musicians and non-musicians in their descriptions of SEM other than that musicians sometimes use technical music terms and that their own experiences of performance can shine through. On the other hand, several musicians maintain than on the occasion of their SEM, they totally forgot any thought of technique and performance and ‘just listened to the music’ like any ordinary listener.[1]

While there is evidence of some structural differences in the brains of those who have had intensive musical training (related to the parts of the body and brain used intensively and repeatedly in particular musical activities),[2] there are good reasons to think that musical responses are not fundamentally different in those with and without musical training.[3] Tonal music, whether WCM or from other Western genres, is ubiquitous in everyday life, and statistical learning—learning simply from exposure—seems likely to play a major role in making any tonal music easily comprehensible. Similarly, there is good evidence that listeners can quickly learn to make useful sense of musics from other cultures,[4] and this may help to explain the relative ease with which listeners to early WCM recordings have come to appreciate very different approaches to performing classical scores. When you get used to them, they sound just fine.

In sum, you do not need musical training to have powerful experiences as a listener; you simply need exposure.[5] While it’s obvious that you need training to be a performer, whether it’s formal training in WCM or the learning through copying that plays such a powerful role in popular music in the West and in most other musical traditions around the world,[6] it’s far from clear what is gained, as measured by the intensity of musical experiences, by knowing historical facts about WCM or by training in theory and analysis. One could argue that the intensity of listener experience is not the most important measure of music appreciation, I suppose; but I would not. On the whole, what matters most about a musical experience, it seems to me, is the extent to which it occupies one’s whole consciousness to the point where thought is replaced by feeling. Not everyone will wish to agree; and that’s fine: it’s nobody’s business legislating for how anyone else should listen.

None of this is meant to question or devalue the fascination of studying music in depth. Precisely because music is so powerful an experience, it’s one of the most fascinating subjects there is to try to understand. One of the reasons for its power is that it engages so many aspects of our life and being; and to study it properly, therefore, involves drawing on a very large number of academic disciplines, covering social, cultural, physical, psychological, neurological aspects of our lives, all of which take us way beyond musicology. Looking across the home disciplines of speakers at a conference on (just) music perception and cognition,[7] one sees scholars based in Anthropology, Behavioural science, Biology, Computer science, Education, Electronic engineering, Ethnomusicology, Geriatrics, Infant development, Information and media studies, Linguistics, Mathematics, Mechanical engineering, Mental health, Neuroscience, Pediatrics, Physics, Psychiatry, Psychology, Rehabilitation, Zoology, as well as Music. And to these, looking for other areas where music is studied, one could easily add Archaeology, Business Studies, Digital Humanities, Economics, Evolutionary Biology, History of Art, Informatics, Law, Modern Languages, Philosophy, Sports Science and Theology. In all these areas, and more, music is being researched for the light it sheds on their own central concerns. One could see music, in fact, as the hub at the centre of one of the largest networks of research subjects that could be mapped, exceeded only, in all probability, by topics more explicitly focussed on the human brain. Music uses a remarkably wide range of brain regions, structures and processes; and if we want to understand music deeply we might do best, in the long run, to look for it there.


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[1] Gabrielsson, Alf. 2011. Strong Experiences with Music: Music is Much More Than Just Music (Oxford University Press), 398.

[2] e.g. Saloni Krishnan, César F Lima, Samuel Evans, Sinead Chen, Stella Guldner, Harry Yeff, Tom Manly, Sophie K Scott. 2018. Beatboxers and Guitarists Engage Sensorimotor Regions Selectively When Listening to the Instruments They can Play, Cerebral Cortex 28(11), 4063–79.

[3] e.g. Bigand, E and Poulin-Charronnat, B. 2006. Are We “Experienced Listeners”? A Review of the Musical Capacities That Do Not Depend on Formal Musical Training. Cognition 100(1), 100–30

[4] Patrick C. M. Wong, Anil K. Roy, Elizabeth Hellmuth Margulis. Bimusicalism: The Implicit Dual Enculturation of Cognitive and Affective Systems. Music Perception 27(2), 81–8.

[5] ‘It is picked up, like language, from exposure and reproduction, which eventually lead to internalization.’ Taruskin, Richard. 2009. The Danger of Music and Other Anti-Utopian Essays (Berkeley: University of California Press), 349.

[6] e.g. Berliner, Paul F. 1994. Thinking in Jazz: The Infinite Art of Improvisation (Chicago, University of Chicago Press). Green, Lucy. 2002. How Popular Musicians Learn: A Way Ahead for Music Education (Aldershot: Ashgate).

[7] 9th International Conference on Music Perception and Cognition; 6th Triennial Conference of the European Society for the Cognitive Sciences of Music; University of Bologna, August 22 – 26, 2006. https://www.escom.org/proceedings/ICMPC9_ESCOM6_Bologna_2006-Abstracts.pdf

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