This study questions the assumption that a majority of nonmusicians pay attention to key when not specifically directed to do so. The question asked was "what do people hear," rather than "what can people hear." Musicians and nonmusicians listened to a song sung in a different key from its accompaniment. There were no other differences in the music stimuli. Subjects were asked what differences, if any, they heard. In other words, left to their own devices would listeners pay attention to and report the bitonality of the excerpt? Although 100% of the musicians heard the clash of keys, only 40% of the nonmusicians indicated that they heard the difference in keys between singer and accompaniment. Of these, half also mentioned nonexistent differences, for example, in instrumentation, dynamics, and tempo.
This study examined the salience of instrumentation over melody and harmonic accompaniment in identifying music excerpts. Musicians and nonmusicians were tested on match-to-sample recognition tasks. In the first task, subjects were asked to choose which resembled the model more: (a) identical melodies played with instrumentation different from the model, or (b) different melodies played with the same instrumentation as the model. In the second task, the same melodies were played, this time with harmonic accompaniments. Again, subjects were asked to choose between: (a) identical melodies played with different instrumentation, or (b) different melodies with the same instrumentation as the model. In the third task, subjects were asked to choose between: (a) a melody and its accompaniment played in a different instrumentation from that of the model, or (b) a melody and its accompaniment played in the same instrumentation as that in the model, but with the accompaniment played in the key that was dominant to the key of the melody. Ninety-five percent of the nonmusicians chose instrumentation over melody and harmonic accompaniment as the salient cue for recognition. Musicians always chose melody and harmonic accompaniment over instrumentation. These findings indicate that untrained listeners do not share or perhaps use the same cognitive schemata as trained listeners do. Further, the assumptions held by musicians that melody and harmonic accompaniment define the essential structure of much Western music, while instrumentation is cosmetic, may not be shared by nonmusicians.