Photo: Juha Metso

It's all in the genes?


My mother was a piano teacher, and my early years were spent surrounded by music. When I was four years old I knew that I wanted to play the piano.

At the age of six, I applied to the music school. This meant that I had to pass the 'Karma-method' test. The Karma test has been widely used in Finnish music institutions, as a way to select 'musical' students who perhaps have no prior musical experiences. The test purports to do this through identifying one's sense of rhythm and ability to detect different musical tones, or notes.

As a child, I found the test quite fun. It was also quite strange, with the sound on the cassette tape being very poor quality compared to the beautiful, rich, music that was familiar to me from my home. As far as I was concerned, the richness of how Arthur Rubinstein played Chopin was what I considered to be music, not simply an auditory structure of noises. Perhaps needless to say, I did not pass the Karma Test. Under normal circumstances this meant that I would not have been given the opportunity to study at that particular school. However, thanks to my mother's background in music, the institution accepted me anyway. After many years as a professional pianist and piano pedagogue, I reflect on my early beginnings with relief that I had the chance to study despite failing the test. I also have considerable concerns for how students are accepted into music schools more broadly. What about the many other students, like me, who fail before they are even allowed to begin?

The Karma-method is alive and well. Last Friday, I attended the public defense of the doctoral thesis: Genetics and Genomics of Musical Abilities by Jaana Oikkonen. In this thesis, she argued that differences of musical aptitude are genetically determined. This raises a fundamental question that concerns all music teachers, music students and music students-to-be:  How do we explain what is musicality/musical aptitude? How can it be tested? Is it, as this thesis suggests, all in the genes?

First, let's think about the concept of musicality. In the thesis, musicality was tested not only through Karma’s Test, but also Seashore's tests. Carl Seashore’s test involved controlled procedures for measuring a respondent’s ability to discriminate between different pitches, volumes, tempos, timbres and rhythms. Is this musicality?

Would such tests measure musicality accross cultural differences, musical preferences, or abilities? Could it be that the ability to distinguish between sound pitches and patterns be more of a hearing test? Equating hearing with musicality negates the experiences and expertise of musicians such as Dame Evelyn Glennie, composer Ludvig van Beethoven, american jazz-singer Mandy Harvey, just to mention a few. It also reduces everything we know about music - the socialness, the soul, the passion, the magic , and 'all the colours between black and white'. In fact, such tests negate my own musicality - as I failed them too.

Even if musicality could, or should, be defined in such simplistic terms - what would this mean for music education?  If musical aptitude and musicality can be proven also in the terms of ’Genomics of Musical Abilities’, these are crucial questions for the  Basic Arts Education-system in Finland.

My work with the Floora project as part of ArtsEqual assumes a very different position to this view - that we all might be pre-programmed to be musical (or not!). My interests as a researcher focus on the abilities and opportunities for music institutions and teachers to engage with and enrich diversity and accessibility in our society. If music education and music institutions are supposed to select students with the most potential for future professional careers, would a DNA test help? Music institutions are already criticized for potentially letting some of our most talented young people slip away.

The Floora-project is proving that there are different possibilities to approach music education, talent, musicality, motivation and a lifelong interest and love for music from many angles. In this sense, music institions might not only exist to select the music professionals of the future, but also to support equality and diversity in our changing society. I do respect Jaana Oikkonen’s work, it stands as rigorous research. Yet, at very same time, as someone who was once deemed 'unmusical' (according to my failed test) and as a professional musician and music educator, I do hope that the humanity and deeper meanings and possibilities that are inherent in music and music education aren't left by the wayside - as those are the very reasons why music matters.

Just as Dmitri Shostakovich once said: there is no good or bad music, but music that touches your soul.


Hanna Kamensky works as a researcher in ArtsEqual initiative.