What is the Ollen Musical Sophistication Index (OMSI)?

The Ollen Musical Sophistication Index (OMSI) is a tool to aid researchers in classifying their research participants as more or less musically sophisticated. Completion of the ten-item questionnaire yields a score indicating the probability, in percent (x 10), that a music expert would categorize the respondent as "more musically sophisticated." Thus, respondents with a score greater than 500 should be classified as "more musically sophisticated" and those with a score less than 500 as "less musically sophisticated."

The term "musical sophistication" is a broad term that includes one's knowledge about music, one's ability to play a musical instrument or sing, to understand, respond to and create music. It is virtually synonymous with the term "musical ability" as defined by Hallam and Prince (2003) at the culmination of their analysis.

Who would be interested in using the OMSI?

The OMSI is a useful tool for those music researchers who are uncomfortable or dissatisfied with assessing participants' musical ability levels based on measures of musical training alone, such as years of private lessons or status as a university/college music major. Although these are two of the most used measures in music studies, formal training is only part of what contributes to a musically savvy adult participant. If formal training is the only measure used to group participants according to musical ability, it may not explain results from those highly musical participants who have acquired their ability through less traditional means or those less musical participants with many years of lessons.

How was the OMSI developed?

The OMSI is the result of an exploratory study that tested the validity of 29 indicators of musical sophistication-most of which have been used to some degree in published music research literature. A questionnaire was developed and administered to 633 adults in Canada, the U.S. and Australia who belonged to various types of groups involved in music-related activities (e.g. an introductory university music class for non-majors, an amateur choir, a professional orchestra). The leader of each group, a music expert, provided a rating of every member's musical sophistication as the criterion variable. When the expert ratings were blocked into two categories labeled less and more musically sophisticated, and the data were analyzed using logistic regression, a significant model using nine indicators emerged (model chi-square = 296.133, df = 32, p < .001). The model was able to classify 79.5% of the sample accurately. For a more detailed account, please download Joy Ollen's dissertation from the link given under References.

In 2009, the OMSI was cross-validated with a new sample of 284 adults in Canada, the U.S. and Australia. As in the original study, music experts provided musical sophistication ratings. The model classified 69% of the sample accurately. Although the model classified the new sample with a lower accuracy rate, it still outperformed either of the two commonly-used indicators, years of private lessons or status as a university/college music major. When used alone, years of private lessons (more musically sophisticated > 5 years) classified 55.5% of the sample accurately and status as a university/college music major classified 66.3% of the subset of college students (n = 107) accurately.

What are some limitations of the OMSI?

Due to the design of the study-in particular, the use of music expert ratings as the criterion variable-the sample was non-random. Although generalization of the results is risky, the OMSI may be useful when applied to English speakers 18 yrs or older who live in Canada, the United States, Australia, and possibly other countries with a western-based culture, including Britain.

Most of the sample was taken in musical contexts which place priority on the accurate reproduction of musical compositions from notated scores (e.g., 'classical' music) as opposed to those that rely less upon traditional notation and value personal stylization and improvisation (e.g., rock, jazz and popular music). As a result, the OMSI may be less accurate at classifying individuals in the latter context.

The results are based upon correlations; it is inappropriate to suggest that the indicators in the model have a causal effect upon one's level of musical sophistication.

Researchers who rely on university/college music majors to make up their "expert" participant group may find that the OMSI does not consistently classify these individuals as "more musically sophisticated." In other words, there may be a floor effect.


Hallam, S., & Prince, V. (2003). Conceptions of musical ability. Research Studies in Music Education, 20, 2-22.

Ollen, J. E. (2006). A criterion-related validity test of selected indicators of musical sophistication using expert ratings [electronic resource]. Available at http://www.ohiolink.edu/etd/view.cgi?osu1161705351

OMSI online