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Perceiving musical tension in long chord sequences


We attempted to predict perceived musical tension in longer chord sequences by hierarchic and sequential models based on Lerdahl and Jackendoff's and Lerdahl's cognitive theories and on Parncutt's sensory-psychoacoustical theory. Musicians and nonmusicians were asked to rate the perceived tension of chords which were drawn either from a piece composed for the study (Exp. 1) or from a Chopin Prelude (Exps. 2–4). In Exps. 3 and 4, several experimental manipulations were made to emphasize either the global or the local structure of the piece and to verify how these manipultions would affect the respective contribution of the models in the ratings. In all experiments, musical tension was only weakly influenced by global harmonic structure. Instead, it mainly seemed to be determined locally, by harmonic cadences. The hierarchic model of Lerdahl and Jackendoff provided the best fit to tension ratings, not because it accounted for global hierarchic effects, but because it captured the local effect of cadences. By reacting to these local structures, tension ratings fit quite well with a hierarchic model, even though the participants were relatively insensitive to the global structure of the pieces. As a main outcome, it is argued that musical events were perceived through a short perceptual window sliding from cadence to cadence along a sequence.

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Received: 24 March 1997 / Accepted: 10 May 1998

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Bigand, E., Parncutt, R. Perceiving musical tension in long chord sequences. Psychological Research Psychologische Forschung 62, 237–254 (1999).

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  • Local Structure
  • Local Effect
  • Hierarchic Model
  • Experimental Manipulation
  • Cognitive Theory