The trouble is we’re not accustomed to talking much about our musical experiences, and it can sometimes look like we’re pretty passive listeners – sitting with our hands folded in a concert hall, for example. In this blog, I’d like to explore how much is going on “under the hood” even while people are listening silently. After all, if fascinating things weren’t going on, how could music have come to mean so much to so many people?
When I tell someone what I do, they often devote a lot of energy to explaining that they don’t know anything about music. “Music!” they’ll say, “I don’t know anything about music!” Yet these same people, so eager to disavow any expertise, might listen to music several hours a day. They might sing in their car, tap the steering wheel in sync with the beat, and be moved to tears by a song. These experiences rely on a remarkable array of highly sophisticated cognitive processes. The more I study the perceptual mechanisms underlying music listening, the more convinced I am that the vast majority of us, despite our protests, know an incredible amount about music.