Intra-European variation in musical ability

Some discussion at Mangan's prompted me to look for studies comparing Europeans of various nationalities on tests of musical aptitude. I found a summary of several such studies in a 1955 book:
In a Chicago Jewish orphanage and a Chicago public school, children numbering 550 were given both the Sea shore and the Kwalwasser-Dykema Music Tests. The national and racial groups reported by Sanderson 146 are Jewish, German, Negro, Italian, and Polish. In order of standing, the Jewish group rated highest, followed by German, Italian, Negro, and last, Polish, who showed marked inferiority. In this study the Negroes earned the highest score in rhythm. The total mean scores of the Sanderson study follow: Jews 185.5; Germans 183.2; Negroes 180.6; Italians 178.4 and Polish 173.7.

The Witherson 188 study, a survey of all the children in the grade schools of Duquesne, Pennsylvania, numbering approximately 2,000 children, employed the Kwalwasser-Dykema Music Tests. More than a dozen different national and racial classifications were represented, and although the Sanderson and Witherson studies were conducted in communities separated by considerable distance the resemblances are striking. In descending order of achievement, the groups rate as follows: Jewish, native American, American foreign-born, Scotch-Irish, Welsh, German, English, mixed foreign, Serbian-Croatian, Russian, Polish, Hungarian, Lithuanian, Slovak, Italian, and Negro. The averages (means) of the Witherson study are presented for comparison with the Sanderson study: Jewish 185.9; German 183.5; Polish 180.5; Italian 178.2; and Negro 177.0. The Eneboe study of 740 Chicago high school students yielded similar results with the same music test. Scandinavian, English, and German children ranked high; the Slavic group was about 20 points lower, and the Italian and Negro children were very low.

Finally, the author wishes to present Dykema's 29 study of ten European groups, numbering approximately 6,000 children of secondary school age, measured abroad. While on sabbatical leave from Teachers College, Columbia University, in 1930-31, he gave the tests in ten different countries under conditions that were maintained fairly constant from place to place. The countries represented in his investigation were : Germany, England, Scotland, Czecho-Slovakia, Russia, Italy, Hungary, Austria, Ireland, and France. It would be foolhardy to accept his results without qualification, for an average sampling of only 600 children in each country can hardly be considered adequate. Yet the study is unique and, as test populations go, rather authoritative. The total mean scores earned by the ten groups are:

Country Mean

Germany 193.58
England 193.42
Scotland 193.42
Czechoslovakia 193.03
Russia 192.40
Italy 192.29
Hungary 189.25
Austria 188.98
Ireland 185.33
France 183.14

All countries 191.21

When we compare the scores of children abroad with those of our own country, we find that the average European child earns roughly ten points more. This difference is based upon the measurement of 4,250 American school children tested with the Kwalwasser-Dykema Music Tests about the same time that Professor Dykema was testing abroad. Statistically the difference is large enough to be considered significant. In addition, we note that foreign children show greater variation in their scores; European scores are more heterogeneous and ours more homogene ous. The standard deviation for all European children is 18.70; for American children 16.49. One-third of the children above the average and one-third below the aver age earn between 191. plus 18.7 and 191.2 minus 18.7. American children with their average of 180.9 show a variation of 16.5 above and below the mean. These scores showing less variation support the claims of anthropologists that hybridization is moving at a rapid rate in our country. Sharp national lines of cleavage are being eradicated to a great extent by the forty million immigrants who have settled here in a single century from 1830 to 1930.

[Jacob Kwalwasser. Exploring the Musical Mind.]

For comparison, here is Mangan's breakdown of Charles Murray's list of "significant" composers by national origin:
24 German
16 French
12 Italian
6 Russian
2 Czech
2 English
2 Hungarian
1 Dutch
1 Flemish
1 Norwegian
1 Polish
1 Swedish
Apart from Germany appearing near the top of both lists, within Europe there seems to be little relationship between the number of great composers produced by a country and the average raw musical talent of (modern representatives of) its people.


Ben10 said...

That the frenchs don't score too good in music on average, I agree. I'm french, living in the US. I have long ago observed the excellent aptitude of anglosaxons kids in music. Anybody can also observe that anglos rule the rock&roll, folk, instrumental, etc, while french attemps in rock&roll are pretty lame in my opinion. So I'd say the results of these tests represent a reality.
On the other hand, I believe that many french people show excellent logical, visual and graphical abilities but I don't know if there are tests to support this assertion.

More relevant in this blog, is the explanation for these differences in abilities. I can only see two explanations. A founder effect or a gene-culture co-evolution.
I am a believer of Frost's theory in sexual selection of european traits. Europeans traits are neotenic and, according to Frost, were selected for mating.
In the case of a founder effet, I wonder if some cognitive traits were passed with the physical neotenic traits and therefore were indirectly selected, or if those cognitive traits were directly selected, being some sort of attractive behavior.

Many people say, and I agree with them, that anglosaxons are often playfull even as adults. Isn't it the definition of a neotenic behavioral or cognitive trait?
Anyway, in Frost theory of selection, it might be interesting to include the selection of cognitive or behavioral traits in addition to pure physical characteristics.

blue anon said...

Sixteen great frog composers? I doubt it. The French are the greatest psychologists, the great discoverers of the mind's tendencies. Freud and Jung are wretched ones. England (broad sense) has little to show for itself in painting compared to France and Germany/Austria, but architecture is really the superior visual art anyway. Iberians are very potent architects, and weaker than other Europeans in most other fields. Russia also shows very fine architecture. These two nations are the only European ones that can ever match pre-Renaissance cathedrals -- the greatest visual works in history and rather even in quality amongst nations -- using non-cathedral forms. Jews suck at painting and psychology, and are a little underperforming in music, but for fine writing their Book of Job is the greatest in world history, head and shoulders.

The greatest philosophers are German and Scandi. The greatest scientists are obviously English: both Newton and Darwin (and Wallace), as well as Crick and probably, by blood, Pauling. It is bizarre how almost all the greatest 15 or so evolutionary biologists are either English or probably English blooded. No other discipline is so lopsided. I think Trivers (origin?) might be the big exception, along with the presumably jewish Israeli Amotz Zahavi. Germany is a very close second in science, with Russia and France clearly quite some ways behind. France probably leads Germany and England, slightly, in math -- I'm less certain. Jews rock at physics.

Glossy said...

Italian-American kids measured in those studies must have been southern Italian. The great Italian composers listed in Human Accomplishmnt were northerners.

I don't know if there's any research that touches on other stereotypes about intra-European differences in ability. For example, northern Italians must have an especially strong feel for visual beauty. It's not just painting and architecture - they're overrepresented at the top of the modern fashion industry too. And at least within Europe old Italian movies have a high reputation.

The French are stereotypically into sensuality. This is not limited to food and wine. They have a tendency to obsess about minute details of many kinds of sensual experiences.

Of course the English are stereotypically known for wit. I wonder if they score higher on tests of verbal ability than continentals.

Ben10 said...

blue anon, I don't think that France cannot have 16 great composers. First, music composition has to be replaced in the historical context where the music composers were also those who made the rules and the trends. But even if french suck at music in general, I guess it's still possible to find 16 extremely talentued people in millions of individuals.
Also, I am not going to argue that Newton is not a genius, he is, but rating Darwin above mathematicians such as Poincare or physicists such as Ampere or De Broglie is more a matter of subjectivity. Those french guys were certainly low profile and not very publicised, but some people argue that Poincare's ideas, for example, are equally innovative than those of Einstein. I don't know if it's true, but clearly, low key individuals, even very bright, will never get as much credit and international recognition than less innovative but more extravert individuals.

But to the point of this blog,it is to suggest that race or ethnic-related mental capabilities differences exist in the general population and not just in few gifted individuals. So, somehow, Newton and Poincare are irrelevant here. But if such differences exist, what could be the source of it?

By the way, you're right to say Jews are good at physic, but they also rock in chemistry. I have to admit, white phosphorus synthesis takes top notch 21st century science, and spreading it on civilian population in the face of the entire world without barely a call to moderation shows they are very good in foreign relations too.

Anonymous said...

In the Witherson study did "native American" refer to people born in the US (as opposed to foreign-born) or did it refer to American Indians?

Anonymous said...

There seems to be some contradiction here. First the Sanderson study says that:

"the Jewish group rated highest, followed by German, Italian, Negro, and last, Polish, who showed marked inferiority."

But then it says:

"The total mean scores of the Sanderson study follow: Jews 185.5; Germans 183.2; Negroes 180.6; Italians 178.4 and Polish 173.7."

Here it has Negroes scoring higher than Italians and Poles.

n/a said...


I find most of Frost's theories unconvincing.

I don't, off the top of my head, have any overarching theories to explain this data. Musical ability (other than rhythm) appears to be positively correlated with intelligence, but this does not explain the low French score.

"Many people say, and I agree with them, that anglosaxons are often playfull even as adults."

Richard Lynn wrote a book back in the 1970s arguing based on various sorts of data that the British (along with the Irish, Dutch, and Swedes) tend to be low in anxiety, while Germans, French, and Italians tend to be high in anxiety.

blue anon,

I was using "great" a bit loosely. These are the top 70 or so most "significant" composers according to Murray's tabulation.

Trivers is probably half-Jewish ("his father was a Jewish refugee from Lithuania" and he was raised Presbyterian).


"Italian-American kids measured in those studies must have been southern Italian. "

I agree, this is likely.

"I don't know if there's any research that touches on other stereotypes about intra-European differences in ability."

There is. I'll probably post something on this.


"In the Witherson study did "native American" refer to people born in the US"

I would guess in that study it refers to American-born children of American-born parents. I'm confident it doesn't refer to Amerindians (that study was published in 1935).

"There seems to be some contradiction here."

In that study, the students were given two different sets of tests (Seashore and Kwalwasser-Dykema). I believe Kwalmasser gives the ranking based on the combined results of both sets of tests, but prints the scores from only the Kwalwasser-Dykema tests (for comparison with other results on the same test mentioned later).

Ben10 said...

Anon#7, providing these differences have a partial genetic basis, there must be a reason for that. Obviously, if it's purely cultural, it belongs to sociology and there is not much more we can say.
So let's say it's genetic in part.
When it comes to genetic, there are several solutions to explain the over-representation of a character (linked to musical abilities) in a population, either the character does give some sort of selective advantage or it does not. This later case branches in two more possibilities, first we can suppose a founder effect, or second, the neutral character was, or still is, co-segregated with other advantageous characters. Here, Frost's theory provides a very fast selective mechanism for any cognitive chracteristic that would be associated by chance with modern european physical characteristics. So if I remember my genetic, I see at least three explanations for a genetic effect.
Obviously I can't go further and I will leave the final word to the experts.
But let's speculate a little bit.
1) Let's say the character here, good cognitive musical capabilities, was somehow advantageous. Perhaps because the old norse languages were more tonic and good musical abilities were required to undestand them at the time these langauges were still in development. Perhaps those who sing better hear better and therefore hunt better...Or perhaps kids who could not sing well were sacrified to the altar of Thor a long time ago...I'm just kidding but you see the picture.

2) A founder effect. The ancestors of the anglosaxon tribes were few in number and it happened that many of them, by chance, had good musical abilities...This one is going to be hard to prove.

3) Characters (genes) linked to musical abilities in pre-historic and early historic times were of little selective advantages, but they somehow co-segregated with chraracters that were advantageously and rapidly selected (like fair skin, hair or eyes color). This one is also going to be hard to prove, but this is still possible.

Anyway, a genetic effect as subtle as a cognitive advantage in musical capabilities, if it exists, certainly requires the interactions of many genes. I might be wrong but to me, there is little hope to decipher this effect at the genetic level, and worse, those genetic effects are not exclusive. But maybe in the future, neuroscientists will be able to 'date' cognitive processes a little bit like they date genes, by comparing the differences (like mutations in genes) in cognitive algorithms in sampled individuals.