Music Perception Research Paper

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Music consists of sound organized in time, in terms of the auditory dimensions of pitch, loudness, timbre, and location. That organization is usually intended to be, and many claim must be, perceived to constitute music. Music is organized within a cultural context of shared patterns that lead the listener to develop perceptual frameworks that reflect them. Those frameworks develop throughout a lifetime of musical experience, both listening and playing, and serve to guide expectancies and facilitate the perceptual processing of expected events when they occur. From this perspective there should be individual differences in the way music is heard, depending on cultural and personal background. All listeners share the human auditory system, but that basic endowment is overlaid by perceptual learning. Music is constrained by what can be perceived by the human ear, and also by the wide range of patterns accessible to human cognition.

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1. Historical Context

The modern history of the study of music perception starts with Helmholtz ([1877] 1954). Helmholtz was concerned chiefly with the organization of the pitch material in music, and much of his pioneering work was devoted to the sensory encoding of pitch. Pitches can be organized in temporal succession, called ‘melody,’ and in simultaneous groups of different pitches, called ‘chords’ and ‘harmony.’ Among the many problems addressed by Helmholtz was that of harmony; namely, how the properties of chords emerge from those of their component tones.

Among the many ways in which chords can differ in sound is along the dimension of consonance vs. dissonance. Consonant combinations of pitches are stable and strike the ear as relatively simple (e.g., a major chord such as C-E-G). Dissonant combinations sound relatively unstable, restless, and complex (e.g., a diminished-seventh chord such as B-D-F-Ab. It is useful to distinguish between two types of consonance: ‘tonal,’ and ‘musical’ or ‘esthetic’ (Dowling and Harwood 1986). ‘Tonal consonance’ arises from the structure of the human auditory system and refers to a quality of an isolated chord, often described in terms such as ‘smooth’ vs. ‘rough,’ ’pleasing’ vs. ‘unpleasant,’ etc. ‘Esthetic consonance’ refers to the relative stability of a chord in musical context, and depends upon culturally conditioned perceptual learning. Esthetically consonant sounds occur at points of rest and stability in the musical structure; esthetically dissonant sounds are unstable and require resolution. The distinction between tonal and esthetic consonance is illustrated by the judgment of a single tone. A single tone represents the maximum of tonal consonance, but single pitches can differ in esthetic consonance. If you sing ‘Twinkle, Twinkle’ and stop on the penultimate note, you can observe the instability of that note and its requirement for resolution to the final note. It is as if it were being pulled down to the final note. That is esthetic dissonance. The final note will be no more tonally consonant, but will be esthetically consonant.

In European music the dimensions of tonal and esthetic consonance are closely correlated. Tonal dissonance is used to emphasize the instability of esthetically dissonant chords, and vice versa. Helmholtz was thus led to approach the problem of harmony in terms of tonal consonance, with little consideration of esthetic consonance. He had observed that as two pure tones are gradually separated in frequency a beating sensation occurs. The frequency of the beats is equal to the difference in frequency between the two tones. Helmholtz thought that the roughness of sensation arising from the beats between adjacent tones was the source of dissonance. However, Helmholtz realized that that was not the whole story. If beats of 30–35 per second were the only source of dissonance, then a constant frequency difference between tones should result in the same degree of dissonance across the auditory spectrum, from the bottom of the piano keyboard to the top. Helmholtz’s observations contradicted this, showing that at least in the range of 250–1000 Hz (from middle C up two octaves) a constant ratio between frequencies (and hence a constant musical interval) results in the same dissonance. Helmholtz ([1877] 1954, Chap. 8) thought that distance along the basilar membrane in the inner ear between the excitations produced by the two tones was involved, but could not specify how. This problem was solved nearly a century later (Plomp and Levelt 1965).

In spite of his emphasis on physiology and on culturally independent aspects of music perception, Helmholtz ([1877] 1954) provided a careful review of musical structure, especially scale structure, both in the history of European music and in non-Western cultures. Helmholtz, however, remained attached to a culturally universal, physical explanation of scale structure, namely that the pitches of the tonal scale were such as to produce coincidences of upper harmonics; that is, that their frequencies should represent simple integer ratios. Since pure tones have no upper harmonics, Helmholtz found melodies made of pure tones puzzling. Then as now, the cross-cultural evidence contradicts the integer ratio hypothesis for scale construction.

Helmholtz was concerned with music perception as a fruitful field for exploring human cognition. In one of his most interesting passages he speculated on why music relies on scales with their sets of discrete steps of pitch, instead of using continuous variations of pitch (like a fire siren). He suggested that discrete steps give the auditory system a way of measuring distances of pitch, which would remain more ambiguous with continuous variations. He was probably on the right track, given what we know of limitations on human cognition.

2. The Impact Of Behaviorism

Early in the twentieth century US psychology turned away from the study of mental life to the study of behavior. ‘Mentalistic’ language, including references to human experience, was forbidden in the major journals, and there was a tendency to study only problems that could be addressed with nonhuman organisms. This discouraged the study of perception, which cannot avoid reference to the psychological dimensions of experience (cf. Boring 1933), and of music and language. Though the Gestalt theorists emphasized musical examples, taking melody as a prototype of a meaningful perceptual whole with emergent properties beyond those of the notes that make it up, they performed few empirical studies. Werner’s (1948) studies of the listener’s adaptation to ‘micromelodies’—melodies constructed of tiny pitch intervals—are an intriguing exception.

The most prominent figure in music perception in the first part of the twentieth century was Carl Seashore (1938). Seashore followed the nineteenth century tradition of studying aspects of music perception thought to be culture-free, and studied them in a way that did not counter the behaviorist paradigm. For example, Seashore made an extensive study of the rate and extent of the vibratos (minute rapid frequency and intensity variations) of professional performers.

Seashore is best known for his tests of musical talent, whose dissemination was facilitated by the development of phonograph recordings. The battery of tests was focused on those component sensory abilities thought to be essential for the development of musical skill, and included judgments of pitch, intensity, melody (‘tonal memory’), rhythm, timbre, and consonance. As an example of the effort to make the tests ‘culture-free,’ the test of melodic judgment (in which the listener has to say whether the two melodies of a pair are the same or different) used nontonal melodies. That is, the melodic patterns did not conform to the tonal scale structure of any culture. The child acquires most of the tonal structure of the culture by the age of 10 (Dowling 1999). Whatever the test was measuring, it was not the efficacy with which the child had acquired the essentials of the tonal scheme. Seashore’s measures have rather modest validity in terms of predicting musical achievements, while tests that take cultural aspects into account have better success (Shuter-Dyson 1999). (For a fuller account of the contributions of Seashore and his place in the history of music psychology, see Gjerdingen 2000.)

3. The Return Of Consciousness

In the 1950s US psychology, stimulated by discoveries in the area of language and by the advent of the computer, returned to the study of human cognition. Psychologists began to think in terms of cognitive frameworks or ‘schemata’ that are acquired through the listener’s acculturation, that guide expectancies and perception, and that facilitate memory and thought. This approach was given new impetus by Frances ([1958]) who concentrated on the framework governing pitch structure. Since then psychologists have concentrated on describing the cognitive frameworks that underlie the mental representations of pitch and time in music.

The cognitive frameworks involved in music perception are largely implicit, embodying procedural knowledge concerning the structure of music. They are acquired very slowly over a lifetime of listening and performing. These frameworks are automatically invoked, so that what the listener perceives is already interpreted via the cultural framework. The frameworks for music are thus similar to those of language. When we listen to speech in a language we know we hear a meaningful succession of words and phrases. The interpretation of the sounds and their meaning occurs automatically.

3.1 Pitch

An experiment by Frances ([1958], Exp. 2) illustrates several aspects of the implicit framework for musical pitch. As noted above, pitches in a musical context differ in stability. The tonic note do in a do-re-mi scale is very stable; melodies can end on it giving a sense of closure. Other pitches in the scale are less stable, and have tendencies that pull them toward more stable pitches. In the previous example, when you sing ‘Twinkle, Twinkle’ and end on the penultimate note, not only does the song sound unfinished, but that note has a very strong tendency pulling it down to resolve on the final note. To show that such tendencies have real perceptual effects, Frances lowered (‘flatted’) the frequencies of two notes on the piano. He then placed those notes in different tonal contexts, invoking different tonal tendencies, to see whether listeners would notice the mistuning. For example, one of the flatted notes was Ab (also called G#). Frances placed the flatted note in pieces in the keys of C minor and E major. In C minor the flatted Ab is the sixth degree of the scale, with a strong downward tendency. (The scale goes: C-D-Eb-F-GAb.) In that case, listeners did not notice the flatting. However, when the very same note was the third degree (G#–E-F#-G#) in E major (with an upward tendency), the flatting became very noticeable.

Frances’s experiment illustrates the importance of the tonal framework in the perception of musical pitch in that listeners hear pitches in terms of their stability in the tonal context. It also shows that the tonal framework operates implicitly. Listeners did not hear a mistuned note, and then think, ‘Yes, but this is a flatted note in a context where the note already has a downward tendency, so that’s all right.’ They simply did not notice the flatting where it went in the contextually determined direction. Frances’s experiment also shows that the tonal framework is not just a static system for categorizing pitches, but rather represents interrelationships of stability and instability, attraction and repulsion.

Music Perception Research Paper fig 1

The mental representation of the tonal system has been explored extensively using an approach developed by Krumhansl and Shepard (1979). On each trial of a typical study the listener hears a strongly tonal context, for example, a scale (in the key of C major: CD-E-F-G-A-B …). The context is followed by a test pitch, one of the 12 semitones in the European chromatic scale. The listener judges how well the test pitch fits the context. Typical results are shown in Fig. 1a. Listeners, especially listeners with some musical training, give high ratings to the most stable pitches in the musical key context: the members of the tonic triad (in the key of C: C, E, and G). The next highest ratings go to the other members of the musical scale: D, F, A, and B. The lowest ratings go to those pitches that fall outside the key—that would be left out of melodies such as ‘Twinkle, Twinkle’ and ‘Happy Birthday’ in C major: C#, D#, F#, G#, and A#.

With a converging method Krumhansl (1990) showed that the tonal hierarchy governs relations among pitches. She had listeners judge the relatedness of pairs of pitches presented in a tonal context and used the ratings to infer relative psychological distances in the mental representation of the tonal hierarchy. The more closely related a pair of pitches was judged to be, the smaller the distance between them. Krumhansl used multidimensional scaling to achieve a three-dimensional representation of the tonal hierarchy, resulting in the conical pattern shown in Fig. 1b. Note that the most stable pitches are tightly clustered near the apex of the cone, with the other scale pitches at an intermediate distance, and nonscalar pitches in the outer circle. Both of the patterns in Fig. 1 show the effect of musical structure on the way pitches are heard in context.

Studies of melody recognition have provided converging evidence for the tonal framework. Both musicians and nonmusicians find it easier to remember tonal melodies, and notice changes in them, than nontonal melodies (Dowling 1991). Melodies constructed of more stable pitches are easier to encode in memory and to retrieve. Further, listeners notice alterations in melodies more easily when they introduce nonscalar pitches than when they stay within the scale framework (Dewar et al. 1977). Listeners perceive and remember more accurately melodies that conform to the cultural norms, and quickly notice deviations from those norms.

Musicians and nonmusicians typically perform in qualitatively similar ways respecting the tonal framework in melody recognition, though musicians usually perform better overall. However, even a few years of music lessons changes the encoding of pitches. Dowling (1986) presented listeners with brief melodies in the midst of a chord progression that centered the melody on the first degree of the scale (the tonic) or the fifth degree. When tested later they had to say whether the melody had been altered (with one pitch changed). The test melodies either retained the same context, or had the context shifted. With shifted context, all the scale values of the pitches changed, even though the melodic pattern remained the same. That is, a melody that had been centered on the tonic was now centered on the fifth: What had been the first degree became the fifth, the second degree became the sixth, etc. The context shift did not affect nonmusicians’ performance; however, it did affect that of listeners with about five years of music lessons in their youth. Those listeners performed well when the context was the same, but fell to chance when the context was changed. Their moderate training led them to encode pitches in terms of their place on the scale framework, and when those encodings did not match the test items, they were lost.

This illustrates again the implicit nature of the framework: people with five years of music lessons are not aware of encoding pitches in terms of their do-re-mi values. If they had explicit access to that encoding they would be able to write down the melodies they hear, which they cannot do. (Professional musicians, having explicit control over application of the scale framework, perform well whether or not the context is changed.)

Thus whether measured via perceptual judgments or the detection of changes in melodies, the tonal scale framework that listeners acquire through a lifetime of experience with the music of their culture guides perception and perceptual expectancies.

3.2 Time

A framework for time is as important as a framework for pitch. Time in music is structured by the overlay of more or less complex rhythmic patterns on a regular beat pattern (Dowling and Harwood 1986). In the absence of a regular beat pattern listeners’ temporal judgments are not very precise, but with a beat they become so. Bharucha and Pryor (1986) found that listeners were much better at detecting disruptive pauses in a tone sequence when a regular beat was present than when it was not. Dewitt and Samuel (1990) found that pitch alterations are easier to detect when the target pitch is part of a regular, predictable sequence.

Converging evidence comes from a study by Povel and Essens (1985), who had listeners tap along with complex rhythmic patterns. They found that listeners were much more successful following the rhythm when the pattern agreed with an underlying beat structure than when it did not.

The relationship between the various levels of rhythmic organization in music, and between the musical organization and the perceptual frameworks stored in the brain, is one of the most exciting areas of developing research. This is an area where theoretical developments have kept pace with empirical discoveries, and an area of broad psychological interest, since a central issue involves the encounter between the biological clocks of the brain and more ‘rational’ structures in the environment. Large and Jones (1999) provide a lucid and stimulating account of this fast-developing area.

3.3 Perception And Memory

One conclusion that has become more and more compelling since the early 1950s is that there is not a sharp line of demarcation between the phenomena of perception and memory. Crowder (1993) provided a nice demonstration that the same brain processes are involved in both perception and memory. First he showed that when the listener judges the pitch of a test tone, the response is faster and more accurate when the test tone has the same timbre as the cue. That is, if we present a middle C played by a trumpet, then the judgment of the pitch of a comparison tone close to middle C is facilitated if it also is played by a trumpet. Then Crowder replaces the cue with a pure tone (like a flute sound), and performance declines. However, if he told the listener to imagine the pitch of the pure tone played on the trumpet, and tested with a trumpet tone, performance again improved (but not if the listener was misinformed and imagined a guitar). The listener’s recall of the trumpet timbre before the test has the same facilitating effect as an actually perceived trumpet. Crowder concludes that memories are embodied in the residue of the neural activity associated with perception (and not, for example, stored in a separate module).

4. Conclusion

We have seen considerable growth over the past 150 years in our understanding of the perceptual processing of pitch in musical contexts. This understanding extends to both the sequential organization of pitches (melody) and their organization into simultaneous combinations (consonance and dissonance—harmony). This progress has been accompanied by a broadening understanding of the importance of acculturation through a lifetime of perceptual learning. One consequence of the role of acculturation is the wide range of individual differences in music cognition, varying with culture, subculture, and training.

During the coming decades I expect that there will-be commensurate progress in our understanding of rhythm and time. The present convergence of cogent theories with sophisticated experimentation in that area provides ample grounds for optimism. For both pitch and time these advances will shed increasing light on human cognition in general.


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