I can haz Mozart too?
September 23, 2008 3:53 PM   Subscribe

So, please help settle a dispute between myself and my boyfriend about Mozart and the musical capabilities of the average American.

My boyfriend and I are having a bit of a row. He claims that the average Joe dragged off the street, who has no prior musical training, can hear part of a Mozart phrase and hear, in their head, where the phrase is going, having never heard the piece before.

I claim he is full of poop, and that the average Joe dragged of the street wouldn't know where a Mozart was headed [1] if you handed him the annotated score. Before I'll believe him, I require documentation or at least corroboration from a more reputable source.

[1] Obviously there are exceptions to that: if it is a very very strong leading tone, they may be able to tell that it shouldn't have stopped there, but not much else.

Opinions? Studies? Anything at all?
posted by WidgetAlley to Media & Arts (30 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
I would argue that the mark of a terrific composer would be one who leads you to believe the score is going somewhere, then take you to a different destination, and make it feel so inevitable that you can't believe you thought it might be going anywhere else.

Having said that, to my knowledge Mozart isn't renowned for his twists and turns and unpredictability, so I would say this would depend more on whether the "average Joe" has the capacity for comprehending musical structure intuitively. I know people with formal music training who can't do what you're describing, but I have no formal music training and I write stuff that people say "oh, I see how you did [some big elaborate complex musical thing] there"...and have done on-stage musical improv to great success, wherein myself and other improvisers and the pianist have been able to figure out where we're going in the moment (breaking into elaborate unplanned choruses, for example, without hesitation.)

you said "opinions?" so there's mine.
posted by davejay at 4:18 PM on September 23, 2008 [2 favorites]

I also have this argument with people, and I agree with you. The best counter-example I can think of is that there are plenty of cultures out there that use non-Western tunings and their notes have different tendencies. In other words, what we hear as a V7 chord that needs to resolve to I may sound perfectly settled to an individual who grew up with, say, the music of rural Tibet and had no exposure to Western music before the experiment.

Now, if by average Joe you really do mean average "Joe" -- that is, someone who grew up listening to Euro-American music, then your boyfriend, he may be right. The guy may not be able to sing the right note (people can be very tone deaf), but I believe that he may have a pretty good idea of where the phrase "wants" to go. This isn't backed up by anything other than musician's hunch.

If I can find any studies to back this up (I'll ask around the music education department here), I'll let you know...
posted by rossination at 4:19 PM on September 23, 2008

Mozart's logic is sometimes inescapable. It's hard to miss the next musical phrase. I agree with your boyfriend.
posted by RussHy at 4:19 PM on September 23, 2008

A Generative Theory of Tonal Music by Fred Lerdahl and Ray Jackendoff argues that your boyfriend's idea is, to some extent, accurate--the idea is that there is a "musical grammar" that is both innate to some extent and cultural to some extent.

I don't know how many empirical studies there are on this, but I am somewhat familiar with the work of Ian Witten, Leonard Manzara, and others who are researching the prediction and entropy of music. In their 1992 paper, "On the Entropy of Music: An Experiment with Bach Chorale Melodies," Witten, Manzara, and Mark James conducted just such an experiment (with Bach rather than Mozart) and discovered that prediction abilities did increase as familiarity with the musical genre increased. But the prediction abilities of the least familiar subjects were not zero.

It would be interesting to compare these results with those of a sample of folks raised in non-Western music traditions. Or to compare the Western folks' prediction abilities of non-Western music.
posted by Sidhedevil at 4:21 PM on September 23, 2008

I also agree with your boyfriend, with the caveats that rossination mentions. One of the things that makes P. D. Q. Bach's compositions so funny is how he toys with the listener's expectations.
posted by rtha at 4:22 PM on September 23, 2008

Where it's going how? Like if there's more? Because it's pretty easy to tell when a phrase doesn't finish. To finish the phrase if you stop, say, 1/3 of the way through? I'd say that's pretty hard to do, but it wouldn't necessarily be hard to get something that would fit into the key and time signature of the rest of the phrase.

I'd suggest looking into this psychologically. If you can get into a university's library database, then PsycINFO would be a good place to look. And I seem to remember reading something similar in Musicophilia at the start of the summer.
posted by theichibun at 4:22 PM on September 23, 2008

Here's a course about this, among other things. It seems like there's a lot of new research out there.

So you and your boyfriend aren't likely to settle this anytime soon, it looks like. Considering the number of perspectives that are out there among the people who are studying this for a living.
posted by Sidhedevil at 4:30 PM on September 23, 2008

I didn't really start listening to classical music much till my late teens. I had had only a modicum of musical training. I soon noticed that I could, with reasonable accuracy, predict where classical pieces were going (not just Mozart).

I don't/didn't claim that this was definitely real. I understand/understood that I could have just been fooling myself. But it definitely seemed real.
posted by Flunkie at 4:32 PM on September 23, 2008

Mozart's music belongs to the Common practice period.
posted by StickyCarpet at 4:34 PM on September 23, 2008

I didn't really start listening to classical music much till my late teens. I had had only a modicum of musical training. I soon noticed that I could, with reasonable accuracy, predict where classical pieces were going (not just Mozart).

The thing is that if you live in the West, you are exposed to Western classical music all the time even if you don't actively seek it out--in movies, on TV, on the radio. In really cheesy popular music, and in less cheesy popular music.
posted by Sidhedevil at 4:40 PM on September 23, 2008

IANA music major or music anything. I worked my way up to ABRSM Grade 7 but that was about it. And that was a long time ago, so I may slip up on some details:

Do you mean being able to tell if the song is ending soon or if it's just about launching into the main bits? Or do you mean being able to predict what note comes next?

For note prediction: the basic idea is in tonics. It's like singing along to a song you don't know. It can be done(ish), you're not always going to get it right, but half the time you'll hit the right notes. Listen to a song, end it on the second-last note. Because most music begins and ends on the same tonic, you'll be able to pick out the typical ending note.

As for predicting where the mood or theme of the music is going, it probably has something to do with phrases. But there's always going to be exceptions. There's Haydn, jolting the audience for the past 200+ years. (I still fall for this trick, from my volume-adjusting habits. Ugh the studio messed up the volume on this one, let me turn up the volume knob here ... OH GOD NOT AGAIN) Usually such unpredictability only happens in songs where the composer was trying to be special and different and racy. I don't think Mozart ever pulled one of those tricks, though.

This article on jazz improv might be of interest.
posted by Xere at 4:43 PM on September 23, 2008

The thing is that if you live in the West, you are exposed to Western classical music all the time even if you don't actively seek it out
Yes, of course I was exposed to classical music. I'm not sure what that has to do with the question - the questioner is explicitly also talking about people who fit in the same category that you're pointing out.

So unless you're suggesting that I could predict most specific pieces because I had heard them all before and knew them subconsciously without realizing that I had heard them before - which strikes me as ludicrous - I don't get what you're going for there.
posted by Flunkie at 4:45 PM on September 23, 2008

In The Autobiography of Charles Darwin (which is really a biography by his son) his son describes how Darwin enjoyed hearing music and had consistent tastes, but was unable to recognize tunes, even ones that he had heard many times and particularly enjoyed. When he heard a favorite tune, he would say something like "Say, that's nice! What is that?"

It is remarkable that a person of high general intelligence and with a specific genius can be deficient in one domain. In neurology, insights into how the brain functions have often come by study of those who have deficits. I wish I had a day to think about this musical phenomenon.
posted by neuron at 4:57 PM on September 23, 2008 [1 favorite]

The point I'm making is that one of the problems with doing empirical research on this is that it's hard to find naive experimental subjects. Lerdahl and Jackendoff suggest that there is some innate generative grammar of music, but that would be very difficult to demonstrate given the lack of control groups.
posted by Sidhedevil at 5:01 PM on September 23, 2008

opinion: your boyfriend is full of poop - for the very simple reason that there is no such thing as "the average Joe"
posted by jammy at 5:10 PM on September 23, 2008 [1 favorite]

Mozart isn't renowned for his twists and turns and unpredictability

Actually, he is. I've heard most of his famous pieces hundreds of times, and I'm still sometimes surprised by where he takes a tune or a harmonic development. He's probably the least predictable, moment to moment, of the composers of the classical period (by which I mean before Beethoven stomped all over it). Now, when it comes to Ditters von Dittersdorf, say, your boyfriend has a point.
posted by languagehat at 5:13 PM on September 23, 2008

I'm very much a neophyte in this area, but while I can't predict a Mozart turn, I feel like I often do listening to Vivaldi - Not sure if the Baroque vs. Classical era differences are a factor?
posted by jalexei at 5:32 PM on September 23, 2008

I think it breaks both ways. I seriously doubt that hearing a portion of a phrase anyone (having never heard a particular piece before) could sing the upcoming melody. However, if your boyfriend is talking more generally, that anyone should be able to sense the general "feel" and direction of the piece, I agree with him.

Classical composers adhered to strict theoretical guidelines when creating their pieces that dictated "wrong" and "right" notes, and dictated how a piece should progress. In general, it was held that it was the composer's job to guide the listener through the piece. In other cases, like when you hear a rondo, it denotes a particular structure to the piece and how many motifs you will hear and when. For the most part it works, and this translates into a feeling of "naturalness" in classical music that to a lot of people means "boring".

This lack of shock at each new section, I humbly submit, is evidence they are (at least subconsciously) primed by the composer for every twist and turn!
posted by Me, The Snake at 5:37 PM on September 23, 2008

Mozart's music is often very formulaic and those raised in Euro-American cultures could probably hear the general direction in which the score is headed. Not that Mozart doesn't sometimes trip you up, but generally, I'd say about at least 60% of the time, you can get the gist for the contours of the music. Stockhausen, on the other hand, or Schoenburg, might provide a different challenge that would require a certain amount of musical education (read: a lot.). Since Mozart was still in the "write it like this for the patron" era, before the ability to abandon a lot of relatively hard-set rules (no parallel fifths, blah blah), a good chunk of his music is kind of, well, predictable, tonally speaking that is. Not to reduce Mozart's tremendous gifts and skills, but it was his job, after all. I agree with Me, The Snake. The melody might not be able to be sung, but the tonal direction might be understood. Again, this is assuming that you grew up listening to Western music. S/he who hath been raised among gamelan in Jakarta or sitar in Jaipur or gyll in Tamale might not hear the same tonal progression as s/he raised in New York or London.
posted by cachondeo45 at 6:30 PM on September 23, 2008

I have a degree in music composition and I teach guitar full-time, so every day I try to get average Joes with no musical training to understand music.

This question is not well-defined enough to be answerable. You need to clarify what it means to "hear part of a Mozart phrase and hear, in their head, where the phrase is going," because I can't imagine what you mean or how that would work.

Musicianship tests include things like being able to listen to a piece of music and clap on the downbeats, or hear a rhythm and then clap it back, or listen to a piece and sing the tonic when it's over, or do some sight-singing, or sing a major scale beginning on a given note, and so forth. But it's not clear exactly what you're referring to here, so this whole question is moot.
posted by ludwig_van at 7:19 PM on September 23, 2008 [1 favorite]

If the phrase is from Ah, vous dirai-je, Maman, then you can definitely tell where the melody is going.

But then in the later parts he starts throwing little twists and flourishes around, so I wouldn't say Mozart is completely predictable either.
posted by casarkos at 7:26 PM on September 23, 2008

Maybe true for Mozart, if "average Joe" means "educated westerner with some knowledge of classical music." What I like about Beethoven and Schubert is how they play with those expectations within the same classical idiom.
posted by brianogilvie at 7:26 PM on September 23, 2008

I completely understand what you're saying, and for the most part, Mozart is a classic because it all sounds familiar. There are few surprises.

However, (and please forgive any errors in this, as I'm going from memory here) I remember being completely floored by a chord when practising Requiem for the first time. It sounded like the piece was going to finish on that note, and then it so didn't. The choir master said something along the lines of "only mozart could have got away with that". It was, I think, at the end of one of the major choral bits and was followed by a short repeat and the chord I was expecting. I'm fairly certain it was towards the beginning, as Mozart wrote it.

Please note that I'm going from memory and I really don't have the time to look it up. I may possibly be confusing it with another composer, as this was over 10 years ago.
posted by kjs4 at 8:07 PM on September 23, 2008

I think there are some good answers here, but I'll throw in my opinion as a classically trained musician. I think that your boyfriend is overstating his case, but very broadly speaking he's correct. By very broadly speaking I mean that you have to ignore the melodic chromaticism in Mozart , the diminished chords and the deceptive (or if you're a Brit like me interrupted) cadences. That having been said, yes Mozart's harmony is, by many standards (such as 19C music) simple so your average Joe might be able to tell where the most simple progressions are going. Actually languagehat has it really: Mozart is a bad example to illustrate the harmonic straightforwardness of classical period.

I'm not sure if there's any greater point behind the argument that you're having, but I would warn against seeing one facet of musical technique as proving that a composer is good or not. In other words, just because a composer uses complicated or advanced harmony it doesn't mean that they're good. Mozart's greatness lies in what he did with the musical materials available.
posted by ob at 8:48 PM on September 23, 2008

As a formally trained musician, I'd agree with your boyfriend.

Average Joe Blow off the street has heard enough music. Music does one of two things as it flows. It either moves to the note you "want to hear", or moves to a different note. There can be several of either category. If the music moves too often to the former, you get bored. If it moves too often to the latter, you get frustrated.

I've composed, arranged, performed, and I agree with this philosophy entirely.

Now, if the question is more along the lines of "Can Average Joe Blow predict where a predictable phrase is going?", then yes. Of course he can. There's a reason "good" music sounds "good".
posted by Precision at 10:46 PM on September 23, 2008

Now, if the question is more along the lines of "Can Average Joe Blow predict where a predictable phrase is going?", then yes. Of course he can. There's a reason "good" music sounds "good".

Can someone explain what this means? Is the contention that if you play a melodic phrase and stop it at any given point, they'll be able to sing the next note of the melody? Or the next several notes? Or only if you stop right before a cadence or something? Or that they'll be able to sing the root note of the key? Someone make some sense.
posted by ludwig_van at 11:22 PM on September 23, 2008

As an average Joe, if you asked me something about identifying where a phrase(?) is going, I'd have no idea what you're talking about. Even reading this thread I have little idea.
posted by oxford blue at 8:11 AM on September 24, 2008

"As an average Joe, if you asked me something about identifying where a phrase(?) is going"

One reason people are giving wildly different answers to this question is because it is fairly ill defined.

The question (if it is going to be a sensible one--let's make that assumption) isn't something like, "If I sang 3 or 4 notes of a Mozart melody could any old tone-deaf schlumpf on the side of the road sing the remaining twelve measures, note-perfect just the way Mozart wrote it."

It's more like this: Suppose I sang to you most of a melody like "Twinkle Twinkle Little Star". (This is a nice example because it is in fact a melody Mozart actually used.)
Twinkle twinkle little star
How I wonder what you are
Up above the world so high
Like a diamond in the sky
Twinkle twinkle little star . . .
(Now I'm not worried about the words here--I've just put those down to remind you all of the melody, since MF doesn't have a convenient method for including music notation in a post. So imagine humming the melody that goes with those words, because the melody, and not the words, are what we are interested in.)

Suppose I didn't just sing this melody once to the "Average Joe"--suppose I actually sang it several times, as many times as necessary, and taught it to Average Joe until Average Joe actually knows that portion of the melody and can sing it back.

Now assuming you have an "Average Joe" who is
- generally familiar with western music (ie has listened to the radio, TV, pop music, etc., not someone from some crazy isolated Amazonian tribe or something)
- can sing and carry a tune somewhat
- otherwise not familiar with "Twinkle Twinkle" (obviously not likely in our western culture, but imagine you have another similar "Mozartean" melody with which your subject is not actually familiar, and which you have taken the first part, similar to the portion I've taken of the "Twinkle" melody above)

And suppose after teaching this fragment to Average Joe you said, "You've probably noticed this is incomplete--how would you finish it off?"

At least 95 or probably more like 98 or 99 out of hundred of your Average Joes who meet all the above criteria, could come up with some kind of a musically reasonable conclusion to the melody.

Just as Oxford Blue mentioned in his/her comment above, lots of those people might not even know what a phrase is, or a cadence, tonic, quarter note, meter, or anything else.

But just as most people can speak perfectly well in their native tongue without necessarily knowing what a noun, verb, or gerund is, most people who have hummed along with a few hymns at church and sung along with Celine Dion while cruising down the freeway or in their morning shower, can come up with a reasonably convincing phrase ending without knowing anything about the whys and wherefores of it.

Again that doesn't mean everyone is going to come up with note-for-note the same solution at all. Without even thinking hard I can come up with 6 or 8 different endings to 'Twinkle' that are different from the standard "that Mozart wrote".

But--they are all pretty similar. They all fulfill the expectations (meter, key, melodic shape, phrase length, etc) that have been set up by the first part of the melody. If Average Joe produced any of them, you would be certain that Average Joe has enough musical understand to see what that melody is about and where it is headed.

And pretty much anybody, if they can sing or hum a tune at all, can do that with only a little encouragement.

It's very similar to a game my kids were playing just this evening. Given a mixed up series of words ("store are we going the to") can you turn them into a coherent sentence? The answer is--yup, most any 4 year old can do it with ease. Your boyfriend's question is the musical analogue of this.

As mentioned in comments above, music from a given culture (like our "common practice" western style music, which includes most commonly heard music in the western/European tradition from somewhat before Bach through Mozart, Beethoven and down the present day--not just classical music but popular music, "folk" music, children's music, commercial music etc.) has a "musical grammar" that is very easily picked up by ordinary people just by hearing the music and maybe singing or playing some of it.

The human mind seems to be hard-wired in some respect to pick up and learn this type of musical grammar (just as we seem to be hard-wired to learn regular spoken language and grammar). That much is not controversial at all--though exactly how to analyze and explain this musical grammar is a much more difficult topic.

But I think that's all your boyfriend is trying to get at--there is a sort of "musical grammar" that even ordinary folks can hear and understand innately.

And pretty much all research into music learning and development suggests that is exactly right.
posted by flug at 10:38 PM on September 24, 2008

flug, I think you're really fudging the details here to make it work out. I disagree with the notion that Twinkle Twinkle is somehow a representative Mozart melody, I think the assumption that your average Joe "can sing and carry a tune somewhat" is a pretty big leap, and your qualification that you sing the melody "as many times as necessary, and taught it to Average Joe until Average Joe actually knows that portion of the melody and can sing it back" is also a big one. I think you might be underestimating how many times that would actually take for most people with no musical background.

And the example of Twinkle Twinkle doesn't really speak to any deep notion of "musical grammar;" it's just simple repetition. The final phrase is an exact repeat of the initial phrase. There are some Mozart phrases that are like that, although even then many consist of more than 4 pitches, but there are also many that are not.

So basically, like I said, I think this question makes very little sense and doesn't sound like the sort of thing musicians would actually argue about. If you plug in the right variables, like an especially simple and obvious phrase, and allowing as many repetitions as someone needs to learn it (which may well be very many), some significant portion of people would get the answer, but at that point you're basically spoon-feeding it to them. Under more reasonable conditions, I doubt that a large percentage of people would get it right. I base this on my experience as a music student and teacher.
posted by ludwig_van at 8:15 AM on September 25, 2008

But I think that's all your boyfriend is trying to get at--there is a sort of "musical grammar" that even ordinary folks can hear and understand innately.

If that's the point at issue, I agree. But if it's the point at issue, why the focus on Mozart in particular? If we're talking about Mozart, and not just "Western music," then it seems to me we have to focus on what is special to Mozart, and the most salient thing in this context is that he is unpredictable. His phrases, sections, and developments don't go where you think they're going to. Just when you're sure he's about to end a movement, he throws in a completely new tune and develops it for a bit. To say "Mozart's music is often very formulaic" is to say something so bizarre it makes me wonder whether that person has ever actually listened to Mozart. Mozart's genius consisted partly in the way in which he subverted the formulas. If we're just talking about assimilating classical formulas and anticipating their use, Mozart is as bad an example as you could pick.
posted by languagehat at 8:19 AM on September 25, 2008

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