Today, we hone our ears. The University of
Houston's College of Engineering presents this
series about the machines that make our
civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity
Years ago, I was offered a
battery of preference tests to determine what field
I should be in. The counselor ran through her list:
The Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory,
the Graduate Record Exam, and so forth. She also
had the Seashore Test, so I asked her to
add it to the set.
The test has nothing to do with sandy beaches. It's
a test of musical ability devised by psychology
professor Carl Emil Seashore. I did well on the
test, but there's a great chasm between my ability
and that of a fine musician. The Seashore test was
used through WW-II, but today it's pretty well
fallen out of fashion.
Now here's an article in a 1922 Scientific
American. It asks, "Are You a Musician?" It
describes the results of Seashore's sixteen years
of work on the test. It shows him listening through
earphones to phonograph records of sounds. He tests
five kinds of musical ability: discrimination of
pitches, dissonance, rhythmical figures, and
intensity; as well as an ability to remember
In our electronic age, we're jolted by some of his
apparatus. He has to use complex machinery to do
what electronics makes so easy today. He's created
special motor drives whose speed doesn't vary and
systems of pulleys to generate reproducible
pitches. He's made a special set of tuning forks.
The article ends with the story of a boy in an Iowa
town who wanted to be a violinist. His father
wanted him to be a businessman. The father finally
let Seashore judge the case. The boy did very well
on the test and, according to the article, has now
"been hailed by critics as the 'Iowa Kreisler'
[while he] came within an inch of being just
another Iowa hardware merchant."
But a key fact in that story gets swept under the
rug. It is that the boy desperately wanted to
be a violinist. Beyond that are also vast
dimensions of musicality that'll never show up on a
set of one-dimensional measures.
What, after all, is involved in knowing how to
shape a musical phrase? Watch any fine musician
close-up, and you'll see a cool blue aura of
relaxation coupled with a white-hot intensity of
focus. Scientific detachment will never capture,
say, Itzhak Perlman's vast intelligence,
personality, and total immersion in the sound and
in its meaning.
Science was exploding into everyday American life
in 1922. It took vast sifting for us to learn what
science could and could not do for us. We generated
every kind of hyperbole and endless false hopes.
Out of all that we've finally filtered a remarkable
Sound and communication were a great piece of it
all. Psychologist and engineer Carl Seashore was
only one of thousands who threaded through the
complexities of handling sound. I'm acutely aware
of that, here in the medium of public radio today
-- the winnowing and filtering that has yielded at
last this seemingly miraculous convergence of
musicians, voices, sounds, and technology.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds
Cary, H., Are You a Musician? Professor Seashore's
Specific Psychological Tests for Specific Musical
Abilities. Scientific American, December
1923, pp. 326-327.
Seashore, as shown at work, in the 1922
The Engines of Our Ingenuity is
Copyright © 1988-2002 by John H.