A Theory of Tonal Hierarchies in Music

  • Carol L. Krumhansl
  • Lola L. Cuddy
Part of the Springer Handbook of Auditory Research book series (SHAR, volume 36)


One of the most pervasive structural principles found in music historically and cross-culturally is a hierarchy of tones. Certain tones serve as reference pitches; they are stable, repeated frequently, are emphasized rhythmically, and appear at structurally important positions in musical phrases. The details of the hierarchies differ across styles and cultures. Variation occurs in the particular intervals formed by pitches in the musical scale and the hierarchical levels assigned to pitches within the scale. This variability suggests that an explanation for how these hierarchies are formed cannot be derived from invariant acoustic facts, such as the harmonic structure (overtones) of complex tones. Rather, the evidence increasingly suggests that these hierarchies are products of cognition and, moreover, that they rely on fundamental psychological principles shared by other domains of perception and cognition.


Music Training Absolute Pitch Probe Tone Pitch Height Western Music 
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© Springer New York 2010

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of PsychologyCornell UniversityIthacaUSA
  2. 2.Department of PsychologyQueen’s UniversityKingstonCanada

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