Music Monday: Can You Name That Tune? Most Likely Not


It’s known as the “curse of knowledge“, a cognitive bias that occurs when an individual, communicating with other individuals, unknowingly assumes that the others have the background to understand. For example, in a classroom setting, teachers have difficulty teaching novices because they cannot put themselves in the position of the student. As a teacher, I have certainly experienced this. I’ll teach something to my students, and the explanation seems to make perfect sense while I am saying it. I then ask them a question about the topic, and it’s obvious it didn’t make perfect sense to the students.

A 1990 experiment by a Stanford University graduate student, Elizabeth Newton, illustrated the curse of knowledge in the results of a simple task. A group of subjects was asked to “tap” out well-known songs with their fingers, while another group tried to name the melodies.

Over the course of Newton’s experiment, 120 songs were tapped out (see below for the list of 25 songs used in the experiment). Listeners guessed only three of the songs correctly: a success ratio of 2.5%. But before they guessed, Newton asked the tappers to predict the probability that listeners would guess correctly. They predicted 50%. The tappers got their message across one time in 40, but they thought they would get it across one time in two.

The reason for the discrepancy?

When a tapper taps, it is impossible for her to avoid hearing the tune playing along to her taps. Meanwhile, all the listener can hear is a series of taps, similar to Morse Code. the tappers were surprised by how hard it was for the listeners to guess the tune.

The problem is that once we know something—say, the melody of a song—we find it hard to imagine not knowing it. Our knowledge has “cursed” us. We have difficulty sharing it with others because we can’t readily re-create their state of mind.

I’ve read about this phenomenon in a  few different places, but never realized it was based on a dissertation and that there is a body of research dedicated to studying this topic.

The key to overcoming the curse of knowledge, according to Chip and Dan Heath, authors of several best-selling business books, is to use concrete language and stories to more clearly convey your message.

That sounds like solid advice for any form of communication.

By the way, I tried the tapper and listener game with my wife and youngest son, using the original set of 25 songs from Newton’s study. I was the tapper, and I went 0 for 6 trying to get them to guess the song I was tapping out. It is amazing how clear the tune was in my head, and I thought they would easily get it.

Stupid knowledge…

Here are the 25 songs from Elizabeth Newton’s study:

  • My Country ‘Tis of Thee
  • America the Beautiful
  • Yankee Doodle Dandy
  • Silent Night
  • Joy to the World
  • I’m Dreaming of a White Christmas
  • Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star
  • Baa Baa Black Sheep
  • Rockabye Baby
  • Oklahoma
  • Edelweiss
  • Yesterday
  • Doe a Deer
  • Love Me Tender
  • Rock Around the Clock
  • Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head
  • Mrs. Robinson
  • Michael Row the Boat Ashore
  • This Land Is Your Land
  • It’s a Small World
  • Auld Lang Syne
  • Flintstones
  • Bonanza
  • The Brady Bunch
  • Gilligan’s Island

*image from Marketing and Growth Hacking

9 thoughts on “Music Monday: Can You Name That Tune? Most Likely Not

  1. I like to think I would have guessed most of these, but it’s obviously harder than we think. I actually thought you were going to write about how hard it is to name very familiar pieces of music.


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