Individual Project Proposal – Scale Categorization, Mental Schemata Creation, and Musical Form

In 1987, Nicholas Cook studied the limits of large-scale tonal perception. He tested effects of tonal closure (or non-closure) on aesthetic response and found no correlation for time spans longer than 1 minute. Thus, he concluded that while large-scale tonal form was defined as a theoretical and even compositional concept, it served no real effect on perception of music (Cook 1987, p. 203). Thus, Cook argues, theories of tonal form are better suited for understanding the practice of composition but not of listening and affect.

A large quantity of research and modeling been accomplished on musical boundary perception of shorter time-scale musical objects (melodies, motives, etc.). This research is based on defining similarity and difference, derived from basic underlying Gestalt principles that are imperative for musical organization, perception, and structural analysis (Deliège 2001, pp. 235-236). Boundary formation arising from similarity and difference functions as categorization, which in turn, is a mental process that is “essential in the study of the formation of a mental schema while listening to a musical work.” (Deliège 2001, p. 236).

As Robert Gjerdingen explains, mental schemata are stereotypes developed to organize knowledge, prototypes created from “generalized abstractions.” (Gjerdingen 2007, p. 10). He has identified schemata, or general musical patterns, in galant music that he argues “lead to a greater awareness of subtle differences in galant music…the music may seem to develop more meaning.” In a sense, Gjerdingen is arguing that, by acquainting ourselves with musical schemata, we can gain better understanding or meaning in music, contrasting with Nicholas Cook’s prior argument. While Gjerdingen’s schematas are specifically musical patterns arising from treble and bass partimenti, he argues they can be any exemplar from a basic instrumental timbre to a “symphony.” One could extrapolate this to mean any mental construct, including large-scale musical forms such as a period, a sentence, or even larger such as a sonata or rondo form.

The question then arises: what happens when musical schemata are extrapolated to a larger temporal realm? Do mental processes of categorization still apply in processing musical form beyond simple conceptualization or theoretical analysis? The answer, I presume would be a resounding yes based on schema formation in other psychological realms (see Piaget’s theory of intelligence and other social work, for example). In either case, the proposal herein relies on an investigation of the existing literature: how categorization functions in larger-temporal spans of music, how schemata are formed in these cases, and how schematic forms aid in perception of musical structures. A further point is raised regarding memory and how mental schematas aid in memory processing of musical structures (did Cook’s experiment fail based on lack of mental schematas for tonal forms?).

SOME ANNOTATIONS (All of these found on JSTOR)

Clarke, Eric F. & Carol Krumhansl (1990). Perceiving Musical Time.” Music Perception 7(3), 213-251.

ABSTRACT: Three experiments are described that investigate listeners’ perceptions of the segmentation of a piece of atonal piano music, the location of seg-ments extracted from the piece, and the duration and structural qualities of each segment. The experiments showed that listeners segmented the music in broad agreement with the grouping principles proposed by Lerdahl and Jackendoff (1983) and perceived the location of randomly presented segments of the music in a strongly veridical manner. Listeners’ location judgments did, however, show systematic departures from veridicality, segments towards the beginning and end of the piece appearing to be located closer to the center of the piece than was actually the case. Judgments of the duration of extracted segments also were strongly veridical and were unaffected by concurrent ratings of structural properties of the segments. In order to assess possible effects of the unfamiliar musical style, the same three experiments were carried out on a piece of tonal piano music of comparable length, yielding essentially identical results. It is argued that the pattern of departures from veridicality in the location judgments for both pieces may indicate systematic changes in attention in the course of listening to the music, linked to large-scale properties of musical structure that are found in music from a variety of styles and periods. The independence of the segmental duration judgments from structural properties of the music may be a consequence of the performance skills of the musically trained listeners used in this study (a sense of absolute tempo is one of the abilities that a performer must acquire) and/ or the particular methods used in the experiments.

This article gives a succinct, even if outdated, review of prevalent literature for my topic, mainly regarding segmentation principles stemming from Gestalt principles (a la Lerdahl/Jackendoff), memory for different musical time spans and relations, and time perception models. The experiments test multiple temporal issues on excerpts drawn from Stockhausen’s Klavierstück IX and Mozart’s K. 475. In the segmentation task participants were asked to segment the piece as they seemed fit: for both pieces, boundaries were found to be similar by a majority of participants. A location task in which participants were to indicate the original location of isolated excerpts throughout the piece found that median values corresponded with the actual locations of the pieces and subjects tended to displace the segments toward the middle of the pieces. The third experiment was geared toward seeing if structural properties affected perceived duration of isolated excerpts; they were quite accurate in perception and no musical features seemed to have an effect.
Cook, Nicholas (1987). “The Perception of Large-Scale Tonal Closure.” Music Perception 5(2), 197-205.


Music of the tonal period generally begins and ends in the same key, although passing through other keys in the course of a movement. Theorists of music generally ascribe great significance to such large-scale tonal closure. In order to test the effect of such closure upon aesthetic response, listeners were required to evaluate a number of compositions in two versions, one of which was in each case tonally closed while the other was not. The results indicate that the direct influence of tonal closure on listeners’ responses is relatively weak and is restricted to fairly short time spans – much shorter than the duration of most tonal compositions. Although large-scale tonal structure may not in itself be perceptible, it plays an important role as a means of compositional organization, and it is argued that the theory of tonal music is more usefully regarded as a means of understanding such organization than as a means of making empirically verifiable predictions regarding the effects of music upon listeners.

As described, Cook asked subjects to rate 7 real compositions (real music with transposed segments to create tonally closed or open sections) on an affective scales (pleasure, expressiveness, coherence, completion). He found no relations between the scales and the tonally closed vs. open versions (except for two, the shortest of all the pieces). He concludes that for musical time-spans longer than 1 minute, tonal form has no bearing on musical aesthetic or perception and that tonal forms are merely theoretical constructs to understand compositional process and concept.

Deliege, Irene (2001). “Similarity Perception – Categorization – Cue Abstraction.” Music Perception 18(3), 233-243.

Deliège’s article is an introduction to a special issue of Music Perception on similarity perception, categorization, and cue abstraction. It describes her and other work on categorization (based on the Gestalt principles of similarity and difference) and the musical listening process. Musical perception is drawn as a system of cues (points of reference for comparison) which are abstracted into levels/groups through categorization and schemata.

Rehashing some questions – Individual Project

BIG OVERARCHING QUESTION: What is musical form and how do we cognize it?

Smaller questions:
*What are the temporal parameters that influence perception of musical form? How do they influence structure?
*Are temporal parameters stronger or weaker than melodic/timbral/etc. parameters? Are they separate from the other parameters?
*NARROWER: How does musical temporality (rhythm/meter/etc.) affect categorization/similarity perception of musical structures? 


Clarke, Eric F. & Carol Krumhansl (1990). Perceiving Musical Time.” Music Perception 7(3), 213-251.

Cook, Nicholas. “The Perception of Large-Scale Tonal Closure.” Music Perception 5(2), 197-205.

Deliege, Irene. “Similarity Perception – Categorization – Cue Abstraction.” Music Perception 18(3), 233-243.

Reybrouck, Mark (2004). “Music Cognition, Semiotics and the Experience of Time: Ontosemantical and Epistemological Claims.” Journal of New Music Research 33(4), 411-428.

Tillmann, Barbara & Emmanuel Bigand (2004). “The Relative Importance of Local and Global Structures in Music Perception.” The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 62(2), 211-222.


Schemata and Categorization

Much ink has been spilt on pitch-based categories in music: pitches within specific tuning systems or absolute pitch classifications, dissonance vs. consonance categories, categorical divisions based on scales or chords, schemata based on pitch and harmony patterns. However, categorical perception is also largely important in our perception of temporal parameters. A crucial example is the perception of microtiming. But, how does formation of categories affect our perception of larger time spans: themes, form, or even meter? Are certain formal spans dependent on a temporal dimension (i.e. does a sentence or period DEPEND on its length or can we define the category without a temporal parameter)? Are these temporal dimensions merely conventions arising from the style or genre (i.e. periods as 8 measures within a classical style) or are they due to underlying psychological causes such as cognitive limits? Why is it that, within a classical period or sentence, we tend to hear symmetrical spans – are asymmetrical spans really that unnatural for perception or was symmetry merely a cultural construct?

While many questions arise from this brainstorming, I am ultimately interested in how these mental precepts arise and how they guide our processing of music (preferably during online listening).

Possible starting point: Using established schemata (Gjerdingen?) as temporal stimuli and investigating perception of said percepts with modulations on the temporal domain. Can we perceive these schemata with metrical/rhythmic disparities? Are the temporal parameters vital in the definition of these schemata? (<—I see this more as a pilot study).