One of the more interesting features to emerge from the New Scientist (NS) special The Roots of Music was an article on amusia. Like many people, I had imagined this simply to mean the inability to carry a tune or to perceive changes in pitch and rhythm. However, researching further in a listen again edition of BBC Radio 4’s Frontiers I began to appreciate how annoying the omnipresence of music in our society might be for sufferers. What, to the majority, must seem like easily filterable background music in pubs, shops etc. must constitute little more than an irritating clatter – perhaps something like trying to think or have a conversation in a noisy hotel kitchen.
It is thought that around 4% of the population are amusic. This could amount to more than 50 people in a large school – perhaps some on the staff – perhaps some in the Music Department 🙂
At the bottom of the NS article was an invitation to take part in an online test. Why not log on and try for yourself? It consists of listening to two playings of short tunes and deciding if they were the same or different. I was interested in taking part see whether it might be possible to simulate what it must be like for the P5 pupils who undergo an aural test at the start of each session.*
However, I quickly found my lengthy experience of processing music made it impossible for me to hear the tests in the same way that a beginner or an amusic person might. I realised that just a few notes into the first playing of each test I was unconsciously encoding the sounds – specifically the tonality (key) and metre (pulse and rhythmic groupings). This gave me something more concrete with which to compare the second playing. However, there were a couple of examples which were sufficiently up-tempo, irregular and lengthy to feel quite challenging.
I’ve often been struck by this educational paradox – the more proficient you become in your chosen field, the more difficult it becomes truly to appreciate what those who struggle with it really feel.