Constraints involved in the perception of melodic structures

"It would have been simpler for psychology if melodies had divided neatly into contours, rhythms, and pitch sets, but is would probably have been a loss to music"

Dowling (1994, p. 188).



A melody is a series of notes that are linked together to form a coherent whole. These notes can vary with regard to several dimensions: timbre, pitch, duration, and intensity. For each of these dimensions, any given melody will use various acoustic features that the listener will integrate into a coherent whole. How does this process of integration work? Is each feature analyzed separately? Are these features integrated into a single structure? And, if so, how does this integration occur? Current research leads us to believe that melodies are represented psychologically as dynamic forms rather than as a group of distinct musical features. A slight modification in only one dimension is enough to radically transform the way in which a melody is perceived.


Musical example


In this example only the rhythmic organization has been slightly modified--it has been shifted by a quarter note with respect to the original melody. Despite the fact that all the other parameters have remained constant, the listener clearly perceives two distinct melodies.

Bibiliographical References

Bigand, E., McAdams, S., & Forêt, S. (2000). Divided attention in music. International Journal of Psychology, 35(6), 270-278. Détails ›

Bigand, E. (1997). Perceiving musical stability: The effect of tonal structure, rhythm, and musical expertise. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Human Perception and Performance, 23(3), 808-822. Détails ›

Bigand, E., & Pineau, M. (1996). Context effects on melody recognition: A dynamic interpretation. Current Psychology of Cognition, 15(1), 121-134.  Détails ›

Bigand, E. (1993). The influence of implicit harmony, rhythm and musical training on the abstraction of "tension-relaxation schemas" in a tonal musical phrase".Contemporary Music Review, 9, 128-139.

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

Bigand, E. (1990). Abstraction of Two Forms of Underlying Structure in a tonal Melody. Psychology of Music, 18, 45-60..

Bigand, E. (1990). Perception et compréhension des phrases musicales. Thèse de Doctorat de psychologie. Université Paris X Nanterre (non publiée).