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Presentation by Dr. Richard Parncutt

Pitch, tonality, and the missing fundamentals of music cognition

Abstract: What are the psychological foundations of major-minor tonality? Psychologists have explored how modern listeners perceive its pitch structures, but the psychohistorical origins of those structures remain unclear. A plausible theory should be able to predict tonal styles as probability distributions of pitch-time patterns on the basis of a limited number of psychologically and historically plausible axioms. From a psychological viewpoint, such axioms should refer to pitches that are perceived (experienced) by audiences and performer – not pitches notated in scores. Non-notated pitches may include prominent partials, missing fundamentals, or pitches expected on the basis of short- or long-term experience (e.g. melodic continuations). Consider a simple example that ignores octave register and tuning. A C-major triad may have a missing fundamental at A, because E corresponds to the 3rd harmonic of A and G to the 7th. Other possible missing fundamentals are F and D. The same chord may have a prominent partial at B, if the 3rd harmonic of E and the 5th harmonic of G coincide; another prominent partial may be at D. A systematic approach should consider all such possibilities in a chord’s spectrum, weighting them relative to each other. Predicted pitches and weights should be consistent with empirical data. But the psychological reality of non-notated pitches remains unclear because “nature” (predictions based on psychoacoustics or physiology) and “nurture” (predictions based on musical experience) are often quantitatively similar. I will present recent data and plans for future work to separate nature from nurture by systematically manipulating musical expertise, cultural background, sound type, tone type, onset synchrony, duration, tuning and background noise. Further strategies include separation of “fundamental listeners” (sensitive to missing fundamentals) from “spectral listeners” (sensitive to prominent partials), and modeling musical experience by statistical analysis of symbolic music databases.

Bio: Richard Parncutt is Professor of Systematic Musicology at the University of Graz, Austria. His publications address musical structure (pitch, consonance, harmony, tonality, tension, rhythm, meter, accent), music performance (psychology, piano, applications), the origins of tonality and of music, and musicological interdisciplinarity. He holds qualifications in music and physics from the University of Melbourne and a Ph.D. from the University of New England, Australia. He is or was a board member of all leading music psychology journals, founding academic editor of the Journal of Interdisciplinary Music Studies (JIMS), and (co-) founder of three conference series: Conference on Interdisciplinary Musicology (CIM), Conference on Applied Interculturality Research (cAIR), and International Conference of Students of Systematic Musicology (SysMus).


May 31 2012


4:00 pm - 5:15 pm




1430 boul. Mont Royal



BRAMS (International Laboratory for Brain, Music and Sound Research) is a unique centre dedicated to research excellence in the study of music and auditory cognition with a focus on neuroscience. The research centre is located in Montreal and jointly affiliated with the University of Montreal and McGill University.


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