I can practically never make my friends recognise the tunes I sing to them.
If I try humming the latest radio hit, I will receive perplexed looks from them, followed by general sniggering and good-natured ridicule. The explanation seems simple: my musical talents are not quite up to scratch. Well, that, or maybe, just maybe, my friends have been ganging up on me for years, conspiring to pull a massive practical joke (“Oh – it was Happy Birthday you tried to hum! Sounded like something from Wagner to me.”). The bastards.
Anyway, all became clear as I received this illuminating article from my good friend and academic brother-in-arms, Jonas Heide Smith, who has a blog of his own detailing the progress of his PhD thesis on cooperation and conflict in computer games (not related to the following).
“the music tapping study conducted by Elizabeth Newton (1990). Participants in her study were asked to tap the rhythm of a well-known song to a listener and then assess the likelihood that the listener would correctly identify the song. The results were striking: Tappers estimated that approximately 50% of listeners would correctly identify the song, compared with an actual accuracy rate of 3%. What accounts for this dramatic overestimation?
The answer becomes immediately apparent when one contrasts the perspectives of tappers and listeners, as Ross and Ward (1996) invited their readers to do when describing Newton’s results. Whereas tappers could inevitably “hear” the tune and even the words to the song (perhaps even a “full orchestration, complete with rich harmonies between string, winds, brass, and human voice”), the listeners were limited to “an aperiodic series of taps” (Ross & Ward (1996, p. 114). Indeed, it was difficult from the listener’s perspective to even tell “whether the brief, irregular moments of silence between taps should be construed as sustained notes, as musical “rests” between notes, or as mere interruptions as the tapper contemplates the “music” to come next” (p. 114). So rich was the phenomenology of the tappers, however, that it was difficult for them to set it aside when assessing the objective stimuli available to listeners. As a result, tappers assumed that what was obvious to them (the identity of the song) would be obvious to their audience.”
The above citation comes from a recent research article that documents what I call the Angry Email syndrome – basically, that people who read emails surprisingly often misinterpret the emotional tone of the message, and most often in a bad way. Read an abstract of the survey, or download the survey itself (in PDF).