What goes through your mind when you watch a professional pianist’s fingers dance across the keys? Is it a sense of wonder, perhaps with a hint of envy? At least, that’s how I feel. It never ceases to amaze me how people can produce such beautiful melodies. I have once tried my hand at numerous instruments, including the violin, with wild fantasies of playing them on a big stage that only innocent children can dream up. Of course, these fantasies were dashed when I realized that what I produced were less like notes, and more like squeaks. I watched dejectedly as my peers soared ahead in musical talent on their violins, flutes and pianos, and wondered how they managed it. Surely, they must just have put in a lot more practice time?
Well in fact, according to a recent study by the University of Cambridge, I may have started this whole race with a setback.1 It is possible my predisposition for lack of musical talent was predetermined by my personality. Involving over 7000 participants, this study is the largest one conducted to date that explores personality and musical affinity.1 An online personality test was made available to the public on the BBC website measuring openness, conscientiousness, extroversion, agreeableness, and neuroticism (OCEAN).2 It’s a shame that the test has been closed with the conclusion of the study because I would’ve wanted to check my own personality profile.
The scientists employed three measures of musicality: general musical sophistication, melodic memory, and rhythm perception.2 General musical sophistication was measured using five subscales of the Goldsmiths Musical Sophistication Index including active engagement, perceptual abilities, musical training, singing abilities, and emotions. Melodic memory was measured through playback of a second melody transposed to a different key to gauge whether the participant could notice a difference.2 Lastly, rhythm perception was measured through asking the participant to indicate whether a beep track overlaid onto a song was on or off the beat.2
The study found, unsurprisingly, that experience was the most significant predictor of musical talent.2 Demographics also played an important role, with age being the strongest predictor. However, after controlling for both these factors, the study was still able to reveal a correlation between personality and musical talent. Specifically, the Openness to Aesthetics trait is positively associated with all three measures of musicality.2 Someone scoring high on this scale would be more likely to try out new experiences and have a strong appreciation for the finer things in life.
Funnily enough, the study also revealed a weak positive correlation between substance use, such as alcohol, and musical abilities. The study does not make any strong claims here, citing that since they only had two tools to measure substance use, a robust conclusion cannot be drawn.2 However it would certainly be an interesting notion if proven true. Think about that one friend who always insists on belting out Disney songs at parties. Is it the alcohol that makes him sound better than he is, or is he genuinely the next up and rising star? Until the next study!
By Ellen He
- ScienceDaily. Have you got the X Factor? Psychologists find that you may be musical and not even know it [Internet]. 2015 [cited 1 November 2015]. Available from: http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2015/10/151013135831.htm
- Greenberg D, Müllensiefen D, Lamb M, Rentfrow P. Personality predicts musical sophistication. Journal of Research in Personality. 2015;58:154-158.