Do Musician and Conductors Hear Music Differently?

How good is your music listening ability? I read an article early this morning about the temporal vs. frequency non-linearities of music (more information on that to come in a future post) and a group of researchers determined, “that musicians and conductors did much better than average music listeners” in their tests. This got me thinking about whether there are different “listening” abilities that musicians bring to a listening session. Are they somehow better than the rest of humanity at hearing music? If there is a difference, is it learned or something they are born with?

I’m not talking about the “golden ear” claims that audiophiles like to talk about. I know that the ability to detect specific frequencies and hear musical details can be acquired by practice and testing. In fact, there is a new Phillips online ear-training program that has just been made available that can help inexperienced listeners. I’ll write on that as soon as I’ve gone through it. Musicians have something way beyond “golden ears”.

Perhaps you’ve known someone that has perfect pitch…the ability to hear practically any sound and identify it’s pitch. Or to see a written piece of music notation, open your mouth and sing a melody exactly on key. I’m pretty convinced that this is a special talent that an individual is born with…it’s not something that can be learned. I remember sitting in a graduate composition class as UCLA years ago and having Professor Reale play the opening chords of a Wagner opera at the piano (Tannhäuser). He asked those of us sitting in the room to write down a few of the chords. This is called music transcription and I was terrible at it as were most of the others in the class.

But there was one student that immediately set about scribbling down the pitches on his score paper. He nailed it. This was the same individual that upon hearing a chord…any chord…played at the piano could sit down and replicate the same chord. I was astounded. After many, many hours of practice, I got pretty good at “relative” pitch and could take down two-part music dictation or sight sing but the gifted guy in the comp course was at a level that I could only imagine.

I was fortunate enough to selected as the Cal Arts composition student representative in the Pierre Boulez master classes in the 80s, which were held at UCLA. Each of the southern California music programs picked one of their students and one of their works for these classes. I was studying with Mel Powell at the time and was thrilled to have my String Quartet performed as part of the Boulez program.

His musicianship is legendary. A story I heard involved a rehearsal of a very large orchestra work…I think it was piece by Maurice Ravel. Anyway, the orchestra is playing a tutti (everybody playing) section fortissimo (full volume). Maestro Boulez stops the ensemble and asks the pianist if the dampers for the middle d and e flat at functioning correctly? The pianist inspects the instrument and replies that yes; they were hung up causing these notes to ring too long. That Maestro Boulez could hear that miniscule detail amidst all of the sound is beyond my level of comprehension.

So when a skilled musician or conductor or singer listens to a reproduction of a piece, do they hear things that we mere mortals don’t? I think they do. Following years of piano and guitar lessons, and years of music literature and theory classes all the way to a Ph.D. in music composition…I know that I hear music differently than my untrained friends. Of course, it’s not that they enjoy music any less than I do. But I’m convinced that knowing more about the components that go into a piece of music affects what you hear…and can make the experience more intellectually and emotionally enjoyable.

Knowing what Elliot Carter or J.S. Bach or John Adams were doing when they assembled a bunch of notes means that I can switch my expectations to more closely match the creative approach and the sonic realities of very different methods of musical expression.

What do you think?


Mark Waldrep, aka Dr. AIX, has been producing and engineering music for over 40 years. He learned electronics as a teenager from his HAM radio father while learning to play the guitar. Mark received the first doctorate in music composition from UCLA in 1986 for a "binaural" electronic music composition. Other advanced degrees include an MS in computer science, an MFA/MA in music, BM in music and a BA in art. As an engineer and producer, Mark has worked on projects for the Rolling Stones, 311, Tool, KISS, Blink 182, Blues Traveler, Britney Spears, the San Francisco Symphony, The Dover Quartet, Willie Nelson, Paul Williams, The Allman Brothers, Bad Company and many more. Dr. Waldrep has been an innovator when it comes to multimedia and music. He created the first enhanced CDs in the 90s, the first DVD-Videos released in the U.S., the first web-connected DVD, the first DVD-Audio title, the first music Blu-ray disc and the first 3D Music Album. Additionally, he launched the first High Definition Music Download site in 2007 called A frequency speaker at audio events, author of numerous articles, Dr. Waldrep is currently writing a book on the production and reproduction of high-end music called, "High-End Audio: A Practical Guide to Production and Playback". The book should be completed in the fall of 2013.

4 thoughts on “Do Musician and Conductors Hear Music Differently?

  • March 3, 2014 at 2:03 pm

    Yes, absolute pitch is an innate disposition. I had a pianist friend who could tell me the 5-6 pitches in the sound from my electric shaver! Almost every great violin virtuoso of the past had absolute pitch (Isaac Stern was the exception.) What may be involved is that, in learning a string instrument, the player has one less step cognitively, in that the pitch matrix is already present in their brain, so-to-speak, so there is one less step in learning to navigate the instrument.

  • March 3, 2014 at 4:57 pm

    All professional musicians know
    have low end consumer equip.

    Most hear details regardless of the quality
    Of the reproduction. Would they like high
    quality/definition? Probably yes if it did not get in their way and if it were affordable.

    Most probably don’t have the time to care.. besides it won’t sound like their live performance

    • March 4, 2014 at 9:35 am

      I had the violist that performed with the Chamber Music Palisades ensemble project in the studio a couple of years ago. He was so amazed at what he heard that he went back to the Colburn School Faculty and insisted that they come to my studio and listen. So the President and about 6 musicians came and left in disbelief. It was good day to me.

  • March 4, 2014 at 1:37 pm

    Definitely! I think this goes without question really… understanding the relationships between pitches/rhythms on a relative vertical and horizontal axis is essential for formally ‘decoding’ the emotions we all experience during a piece of music :- ). The process of intellectualizing sonic motion and harmonic natures gives us essential insight of such emotive elements that are indigenous to the sounds we all love. This is not to say that being unable to dictate polychords hanging upside-down means that one’s emotional entanglement with music is jeopardized. And I’m not at all claiming that these global concepts are accessed exclusively through a single body of Western musical notions & nomenclature- (but it’s a darn good one!) I would say with confidence that any musician can benefit from studying a Bach piece. Perhaps not necessarily on a technical or stylistic level, but rather on the primordial emotional level. Which is what us musicians and engineers ultimately must use to communicate… ….

    ….aside from HD audio of course ;- )


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