The study by academics at Roehampton university may have implications for the way music is taught in schools. Researchers equipped 30 nursery class children with a cassette tape and asked them to pair up segments of classical and modern pieces.
Pupils matched the correct recordings in around 70 per cent of cases, the report said, suggesting that, "children can make much more accurate stylistic comparisons than previously thought".
Dr Nigel Marshall, a senior lecturer in music at Roehampton, said the study showed that children were often far more sophisticated listeners than their teachers realised. "People tend to measure a child's musical ability based on tests that measure a particular kind of skill, for example, in playing instruments or composing," he said.
Pupils who had a good ear for listening, a supposedly "low status" skill, were often overlooked in tests, he explained. "The problem is their musical education can be based on these tests, which is why it's important to approach them differently." Teachers could get pupils to keep a "listening journal", he suggested.
An extension of the study, focused on secondary school pupils, has similar implications for the way musical ability is tested.
It found that when pupils were asked to concentrate on a piece of music, they were less able to identify it. "A lot of tests involve attaching language, but as soon as you do you make it harder," explained Dr Marshall.
Intriguingly, pupils also appeared to perform worse when they had just left a lesson they disliked, such as maths. "If children come into a lesson emotionally aroused, they find it difficult to attend to listening activities," Dr Marshall said.
Assessing pupils' abilities on long-term projects was a better way of measuring their talents, he explained.
It could also be a valuable way of bringing civilising influences to bear, if Leicester university researchers are to be believed.
Their recent study, published in the Psychology of Music journal, found that compared with modern pop and dance fans, orchestra-lovers were less likely to be involved in illegal drugs and more likely to recycle and support general taxation.