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Perception and Music...What Are You Really Hearing?

#RCMScience - Perception and Music

Have you ever heard the expression, “Everything old is new again”? In other words, it’s all about how you look at it or, in this case, listen to it. When it comes to music, some of my favourite experiences have been listening to a familiar piece in a brand new setting. Hearing a live version or a new recording of an old piece, or even listening to an oldie on a new stereo can bring music to life again. It’s like hearing something for the first time: I notice something new, like a bass line I never paid attention to before, or a harmony I didn’t realize was so interesting. In music, an artist’s attention to detail is the difference between a seasonal hit and just another recording of White Christmas.

Perception helps make sense of what you're sensing
When a listener finds something interesting in music, they’re using their perception. Perception goes deeper than just using your senses; it makes sense of what you’re sensing, in effect combining that information with prior knowledge and predispositions to find patterns, features, and coherence.

For example, looking at Letter A written in various scripts we can recognize that they are all examples of the letter A. We identify the basic template of an A, having extrapolated it from our prior knowledge, and can apply that knowledge even if it’s not a perfect match. Or take a more ambiguous case, like the middle letters of these two words:

The cat, slanted, missing top of A

We automatically combine our sense information and prior knowledge of English to understand the words as “THE CAT,” even though the middle letters look identical. In cases like these, we’re not even explicitly aware that our perception is at work.

Exploring the link between perception and music
The same kind of implicit perception happens in music, too. Our experience with music helps us perceive patterns and regularities when we listen. Even without training, most people “get” music: They can understand what they’re hearing, clap on the beat, and notice if there’s a wrong note.  And music contains lots of interesting patterns to perceive. It’s filled with rhythmic structures, musical keys, and dynamic patterns, all of which are unconsciously processed by the listener.

So if we all perceive music by and large unconsciously, then why bother studying it? Well, here’s the thing: It might sound like a bad bumper sticker, but musicians do it better. Yes, most people can perceive a note that’s off-key or off-beat, but musicians do it more accurately. Compared to non-musicians, musicians can follow a beat more precisely and can better discern patterns unfolding over time. That’s not to say that musicians enjoy music any more than non-musicians, but it does mean that they have a more perceptive ear.

Because of the link between perception and music, perception is an important focus in our Smart Start™ curriculum for early childhood music education. We have designed activities to target core perceptual skills such as pattern recognition and feature searching. For example, at two years old, children learn to internalize the beat of a song (a regular pattern) through movement like bouncing stuffed animals on a parachute, and learn to recognize the basic form of a song even as it changes across repetitions (as in a counting or a naming song). And five year olds may be asked to recognize a glissando (though not by name!) in a musical accompaniment to a song about apples falling from a tree.

With the development of these amped-up perceptual skills, musicians’ brains are different than those of non-musicians. Larger portions of their brains are devoted to auditory processing, which shows increased activity when perceiving changes in a musical pattern (even unconsciously!). Recent findings also show that, in musicians, some of the earliest neural signals in the brainstem follow the pitch of a sound more precisely than non-musicians. This means that, essentially, musicians have the advantage of working with a more faithful representation of the sounds they hear.

Even more interesting is that musicians’ auditory advantages aren’t just limited to music—they transfer to language as well. Perceiving the sound of language requires hearing changes that happen over milliseconds. More and more evidence suggests that the perceptual advantages of musicians help them better understand language, including having a better vocabulary and more advanced grammar skills.

Much of our work at the RCM Research Centre revolves around examining perceptual skills in musicians of all ages and experiences, and understanding how improvements in perceptual skills can translate to other domains, like language. We look for connections between singing or keeping a beat and phonetic recognition; we see how musicians discern speech in noisy contexts, and even how they imitate different accents. These studies help us to delve deeper into the fundamental processes that are common to both music and language, and help us learn more about the role music plays in the developing brain.

For musicians and non-musicians alike, listening to different kinds of music helps train the ear to recognize patterns and notice changes. Your experience of music is shaped by your experience with music. Study music and you could improve your perceptual skills in the world at large, not just at your next lesson.

(Blog challenge: Can you find the 'smile' in the image above?)

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More and more evidence suggests that the perceptual advantages of musicians help them better understand language, including having a better vocabulary and more advanced grammar skills.