Constraints involved in the perception of harmonic structures

"Thanks to equal temperament, we no longer need to ask whether tonality is a natural or artificial language. On the one hand, it is clear that it is based on the physical properties of sound, and on the other, that it deforms and even alters these properties in the single-minded attempt to create a real language with richer and more complex possibilities"

Rosen, (1971, p. 27).



The term, harmonic structure, designates a system of relations that exist between the complex sound events we call chords. A chord is the result of three notes being played simultaneously.

From a historic point of view, the western harmonic system appears as the result of a long theoretical and empirical exploration of the structural potential of sound events. For cognitive psychology, the task is to understand how a contemporary listener can perceive a system in which both cultural conventions and a host of psycho-acoustical constraints are tightly interwoven.

The researchers first objective is to separate structural factors that come from a cognitive level of representation from those more directly linked to psychoacoustical phenomena. The second objective is to test the influence of global and local factors on the perception of harmonic structures. At first, researchers used an experimental method which involved measuring the degree of subjective musical tension linked to each chord of a long sequence, and in testing for the importance of cognitive and psychoacoustical models.


Musical example


In the first example, the final chord produced a high level of tension in the listener. In the second example, no tension was produced by the final chord of the sequence, and the piece could very well end on it. What are the psychoacoustical and cognitive factors at play in these sensations of musical tension?

The second objective is to determine the influence of global and local factors on the perception of harmonic structures. To test for this influence, a harmonic priming paradigm is used which is similar to the paradigm of semantic priming used in psycholinguistics. Research has shown that, by and large, adult listeners who have no specific musical training have nonetheless interiorized the fundamental principles of the western harmonic system. It has also been shown that this knowledge allows individuals to integrate the different chords of a musical sequence into an overall structure that is divided into several hierarchical levels.

"dee" and "doo" demo


Bibiliographical References

Bigand, E., Poulin, B., Tillmann, B., Madurell, F., & D'Adamo, D. A. (2003). Sensory versus cognitive components in harmonic priming. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Human Perception and Performance, 29(1), 159-171. Détails ›

Tillmann, B., & Bigand, E. (2001). Global context effect in normal and scrambled musical sequences. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Human Perception and Performance, 27(5), 1185-1196. Détails ›

Bigand, E., Tillmann, B., Poulin, B., D'Adamo, D. A., & Madurell, F. (2001). The effect of harmonic context on phoneme monitoring in vocal music. Cognition, 81(1), B11-B20. Détails ›

Regnault, P., Bigand, E., & Besson, M. (2001). Different brain mechanisms mediate sensitivity to sensory consonance and harmonic context: Evidence from auditory event-related brain potentials. Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience, 13(2), 241-255. Détails ›

Bigand, E., & Parncutt, R. (1999). Perceiving musical tension in long chord sequences. Psychological Research, 62(4), 237-254. Détails ›

Bigand, E., Madurell, F., Tillmann, B., & Pineau, M. (1999). Effect of global structure and temporal organization on chord processing. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Human Perception and Performance, 25(1), 184-197. Détails ›

Tillmann, B., Bigand, E., & Pineau, M. (1998). Effects of global and local contexts on harmonic expectancy. Music Perception, 16(1), 99-117. Détails ›

Bigand, E., & Pineau, M. (1997). Global context effects on musical expectancy. Perception & Psychophysics, 59(7), 1098-1107. Détails ›

Pineau, M., & Bigand, E. (1997). Effet des structures globales sur l'amorçage harmonique en musique. L'Année Psychologique, 97(3), 385-408. Détails ›

Bigand, E., Parncutt, R., & Lerdahl, F. (1996). Perception of musical tension in short chord sequences: The influence of harmonic function, sensory dissonance, horizontal motion, and musical training. Perception & Psychophysics, 58(1), 125-141. Détails ›

Bigand, E. (1993). L'organisation perceptive d'oeuvres musicales tonales. Paris: Maison des Sciences de l'Homme.