5 Musical Myths Debunked

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Heavy Metal Music You could write an entire book about why, given a discrepancy between scientific facts and anecdote-based folklore, humans are more likely to believe the folklore than the science.

Depending on where in the world you live, you’ll be told that two crows sitting together is a sign something joyful is about to happen to you (no, they’re lonely), that a full moon makes the weather colder (no, it doesn’t), or that coffee will speed up the dissipation of alcohol from your body (no). And on it goes.

Music is not immune from mythology either. The following are five myths that abound in the musical world:

1. Perfect pitch is desirable and necessary to be a complete musician.


Perfect pitch, also called absolute pitch, is the ability to recognize musical notes with no reference to any other note. Someone walks up to a piano, plays a G#, and you know it’s a G# just because it sounds like it. It’s a rare ability held by a small percentage of musicians.

The far-more-vital skill of relative pitch – the ability to identify a pitch based on one other known pitch, is a better skill to develop and hone. With perfect pitch, it’s possible to miss out on more important abilities such as being able to craft a creative chord progression, imagine a beautiful melody, or to hear the relationship between what the various instruments in the band are playing. Those are abilities that come with relative, not perfect, pitch.

2. Learning music theory will stunt your creativity.


Just think about it: has your ability to read books and communicate to others the ideas you’ve read in those books stunted your ability to be creative with words? The notion would be ludicrous. So why the thought that learning music theory would put your creative abilities in a straitjacket is just bizarre.

It’s likely that the myth surrounding the negative effects of music theory came from songwriters looking to defend their lack of theoretical knowledge. And since it is actually quite possible to write music based on one’s own instincts, some make the erroneous assumption that the opposite must also be true: that applying theoretical understanding to the creation of music results in uncreative music. I guess that’s why Beethoven failed so massively as a creative composer. 😉

3. Listening to Mozart makes you more intelligent (The “Mozart Effect”.)


Back in the 1990s, the results of a new musical study were published in Nature magazine. That study claimed that people who listened to Mozart were more likely to score higher in spatial tasks. Those results were quickly disproven in other experiments, but the public’s fascination with the original supposition quickly grew and expanded to claims that Mozart’s music was likely to make you more intelligent in general. People bought Mozart recordings to play for their children, and hoped for the next Einstein. But any special benefits that might come from Mozart, or any other composer or genre, have been well and truly debunked.

4. Today’s pop music is worse than at any other time in history.

(Depending on what you mean by “worse”, but) MAINLY FALSE.

Granted, it sure seems that way. Spend any time looking at the Billboard Hot 100 from the 1960s or ’70s, and then a few minutes looking at today’s top-of-the-charts offerings, and you’re left shaking your head and wondering what the heck has happened to music.

A recent article from Smithsonian proclaimed “Science Proves: Pop Music Has Actually Gotten Worse“, but that headline was incorrect, likely written to grab attention. In fact, the Spanish study they quote merely showed that songs being recorded today are becoming more and more similar — not exactly the same thing as saying that it’s worse.

How a song makes it to the Billboard Hot 100 is calculated in a different way than it was a few years ago. Now, YouTube and other streaming services are taken into consideration, not just radio airplay and sales. But that’s all a side issue. Is music actually worse?

Probably not. It may seem worse to you because it’s easier now for you to hear music you’d otherwise not be listening to. Even just a couple of decades ago (but you don’t have to go back that far), the only music you were likely to hear was polished music created in a professional studio by people who could sing without auto-tuning. It may not have been great music, but it sounded more consistently better.

Today, you hear it all through the magic of the internet. You could make the claim that you are hearing more bad music today. But there’s probably always been lots of bad music. You just weren’t subjected to it. (Side note: Don’t judge the quality of music by whether or not it makes it to the Billboard Hot 100).

5. Heavy metal music has negative effects on listeners, causing suicides, mass murders, etc.


The opinions on this one go back in forth. For example, a 1999 study by researchers Scheel and Westefeld (“Heavy metal music and adolescent suicidality: an empirical investigation.”) said fans of heavy metal music “…had less strong reasons for living (especially male fans) and had more thoughts of suicide (especially female fans).”

A later study showed, however, that listening to music with a suicidal message, while making the listeners think more about suicide, actually had no negative effect on rates of suicide. Probably similar to the effect you might expect on a group of people watching a video about sea turtles: it’s likely to make them think about sea turtles. But it doesn’t necessarily mean that they’ll suddenly join a “Save the Sea Turtles” group.

Please feel free to share your thoughts below.


Gary EwerWritten by Gary Ewer. Follow on Twitter.

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  1. I don’t agree that #4 is probably false, at least according to the study you cite. You claim that “more and more similar” is not the same as worse. I believe it is. “More and more similar” means less and less variety, and, as a corollary, less and less complexity (it’s the complexity that creates variety). And the study also shows this: “The study also found that pitch content has decreased – which means that the number of chords and different melodies has gone down.”

    So what you have, is a monotonous, harmonically and melodically impoverished music. I don’t believe it is an eccentric claim that such music is worse than a more varied, rich, complex music.

    • Yes, I think in retrospect that at least part of me tends to agree with you. I think the kind of similarity we see today is a problem. I wrote that post in 2014, and if I were to write it today, I might have a slightly different take on this topic. If you go back a few decades, there was a common story of bands fighting with producers as they tried to get their own sound and their own approach to songwriting out there. Today, it’s hard for any band or person to even get through the door if they aren’t already being controlled by a high-powered producer. I think that that accounts for the mind-numbing similarity between songs on the pop charts that we experience today.

      So I find myself agreeing with you on this one. Thanks very much for making a very good point.


  2. On perfect pitch: I am always fascinated, sometimes amused, by misunderstandings about what perfect pitch is (and isn’t). It is mere pitch recognition, not much more than that; and to an extent, I know from my own experience, depending on how refined that sense is, I can tell if a particular note is ‘flat’ or sharp from where it should be. I can’t tell you exactly how many cents flat or sharp, but I can tell. Perfect pitch is a great tool if you have it; it speeds up the process of learning music, composing music, and is a great confidence and ability booster for singing vocals on pitch. However, if others around me go flat or sharp, I can stay with them fine. But I can sing microtonally and do all sorts of things because it doesn’t hamper me in any way. But it’s not make it or break it compared with relative pitch. That’s for sure. One thing though: if a piano drops in tuning, a semitone or more, I “get lost” playing on it. A relative pitch player: no problem.

  3. Regarding #4 – You also have to take into consideration ‘survivor bias’. Sure, if you take the top 100 from the 70s, it’s easy to say “And that music is STILL AROUND!” but you forget there were *thousands* of other songs (if not hundreds of) that are now forgotten, relegated to dusty bins of some old shop that will never even make it onto Spotify. The songs that were bad then are now forgotten, just like the bad songs from today will be forgotten 10 years from now.

    Even classical music suffers from the same bias. There are more crappy songs written from Mozart’s time than you can count. I’m sure they complained about it then as well.

    • Very true, Robb. History has a way of filtering out the garbage so that when we look back in time, the picture looks very rosy. Listening to today’s music means that we don’t have the benefit of that naturally-occurring filter.

      Thanks for writing,

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