Tempo Perception

At the beginning of the semester, we discussed findings from experimental studies that were consistent with the existence of a preferred tempo or maximal pulse salience zone around 100 bpm (600 ms), i.e., a rate around which participants spontaneously tap and at which participants’ performance on tapping and detection tasks tends to be better. While some of the studies that reported these findings did involve “real” music as source materials for lab stimuli, most did not. Furthermore, most studies focus on a single pulse level (beat or tactus) and map this pulse level on a theoretical model that presuppose a metric hierachy.

Martens’s (2011) and London’s (2011) studies offer a somewhat contrasting account of pulse perception that, at the very least, calls for some qualification of these earlier findings. How do these two studies relate to one another? How do their findings converge or diverge? And what might be some of the implications of these findings for a theory of tempo perception (and meter)? And how does this week’s focus article on the “swing ratio” (Honing & de Haas, 2008) inform this issue?

If you will not be attending class on Thursday morning, please post a preliminary response by Tuesday, October 30, 11:59PM. If you will be attending class, you may still post a preliminary response, but it is optional.

3 thoughts on “Tempo Perception

  1. In my opinion, the importance of these studies stretches far beyond the specific questions answered by their respective experiments. Each raised a question that has been on my mind since the beginning of the course: how much can we infer about our perception of music from test stimuli that have but a fleeting resemblance (perhaps an exaggeration, but the point still stands) to actual music? The fact that both of these studies cast serious doubt on previous findings points to a need to consider this question more seriously and more often.

    The notion of a “consistency threshold,” for instance, demonstrates how a more nuanced perspective on perception can arise from grappling with the difficulties of real music; it provides us with a tool for better understanding the complexities of pulse salience in real-world examples. Of course, considering real musical examples introduced a host of problems, but sacrificing them for a “cleaner” experiment is of questionable utility.

  2. Both of these articles tackle a complex phenomenon that relates physical signals and complex psychological processes. One of the issues with the two articles is the difference in terminology and approach, which I feel comes from differences in what the music itself portrays.

    London begins his article by discussing metronome markings, implying some salient pulse in the musical structure (which he differentiates from perceived musical speed). Tempo, is then the rate of pulses in the musical structure (given a specific measurement unit of quarter note or eighth or whatever).

    Martens, on the other hand, defines tactus as the tapped psychological choice of the listener, which does not exist in the score. Tempo, as he is using it, is based on the psychological tactus that is perceived by the subject (which is processed, using subdivision or resonance curves, from musical features).

    This differentiation, I feel is critical to a discussion of pulse perception: is the pulse really in the music or do we arrive at it from the surface features? This is something we’ve discussed at length before and it seems that even in these two recent articles, tempo/tactus/pulse are still conflated in a perhaps damaging way for the field.

  3. Peter Martens’s ‘The Ambiguous Tactus’ (2011) is on the whole a refreshingly well-conceived and responsibly researched article with an insightful and valuable (contra perfunctory) discussion. Perhaps this is all the less surprising once we recognize that the article constitutes an abridgement of his dissertation work (Beat-finding, listener strategies, and musical meter, 2005). In my enthusiasm for Martens’s ideas, I use this post to consider some of those more ramifying for the interdisciplinary perspective: meter as ‘constructed mental representation’ (440) and the implications of ‘variable tappers’ (444 ff.). Components of these potentially fold into a ‘theory of metric perception’, as suggested by Dr. Poudrier’s prompt.

    First: Martens writes, ‘I accept…[a] separation between rhythms and their pulses as acoustic reality on the one hand, and a meter and its beats as cognitive inference on the other’ (434). While he does not at first expand upon this caveat of sorts, he later writes a phrase that can belie a similar a priori theoretical commitment: ‘Hemiolic tactus choices such as the tripleted quarter note in this excerpt may strike us as bizarre, but they simply reflect a differently constructed mental representation of the piece’s meter’. Between these two phrases, Martens suggests the epistemological status of meter via two fairly synonymous phrases: meter as ‘cognitive inference’ and meter as a ‘constructed mental representation’. Where I have previously argued that such ‘representation’ or ‘inference’ constituted an active and deliberate analytical-cognitive action by the listener, here I retreat somewhat speculating that the issue is more fraught than I have been willing to concede. To be sure, for foreign—and therefore, potentially difficult—music, I am inclined to maintain a position of deliberate listener action in metric induction, as this is how my intuition, or experiential memory instructs me. It is with more familiar and less ambiguous or over-determined music that I soften the hard line. Deliberate or not, meter as ‘inference’ or ‘representation’ remains a crucial determination because, quenched as tow, come ideas of subjectivity, which are definitionally nullified by an autonomous-induction model. With this implication of allowable metric subjectivity, as hinging epistemologically on mental representation, Martens is able to write what should certainly receive more attention in both cognition and theory: ‘A performer will, consciously or not, choose a tactus prior to performance, but this particular periodicity may or may not match an audience’s tactus, and neither of these beat levels might correspond to the tactus implied by the meter signature. While I reject the sometimes historical notion that a tactus exists “in the score”, the performers’ and listeners’ choice of main beat can both be properly considered a tactus, even if they disagree, provided that the ownership remains clear’ (433). Or, for that matter, performers and listeners may agree on a tactus but differ in their mental representations of meter. Entertaining the notion that music can in general provoke some, several, or many metric mental representations contests one apparently dominant paradigm of metric theory, the final-state reading. Perhaps empirically substantiating this notion of multiple-representation/metric-subjectivity through further experiments could join, irrevocably separate, or otherwise inform this disjuncture.

    Second: on ‘variable tappers’. Martens writes, ‘Recall that Variable tappers responded neither consistently nor uniformly to consistent subdivision, or to a lack thereof, but rather seemed to respond very specifically to rhythmic activity at the musical surface in choosing a tactus’ (444). As context, he describes this sub-contingent of study participants as comprised uniformly of musicians with at least six years of training and as those same who have studied higher-range strings and winds, piano, voice, percussion, and guitar. Theoretically, Martens’s quotation seems rather provocative. I hardly know all of the literature on rhythm and meter, but I have yet come across the idea of a mobile tactus proper, which I must say in my younger listener-only naiveté occurred to me so obviously. It may be that the ‘mobile tactus’, as I functionally dub it here, is like Danuta Mirka’s metrum or Joti Rockwell’s rhythmic reductions of bluegrass accompaniment licks. Both of these approximate something that the performer follows; yet it is neither the surface rhythms nor the meter mentally construed. Perhaps in its own way, a mobile tactus—here tracking this pulse level, there another—can be analytically conceived as a performance heuristic that somehow falls out of the ‘integrated bundle of musical elements’ (see London 2011, his quote of Epstein). These are evidently broad strokes; nevertheless, to me, it is apparent that our knowledge, theory, and analysis would improve by thinking about this some more.

    – S P G

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