Commentary on Musical Examples from The Cognition of Basic Musical Structures

This page contains commentary on some of the funner examples from The Cognition of Basic Musical Structures, by David Temperley. (You can listen to the examples on the page to the right.)


Figure 2.2. The melody "Oh Susannah". Where is the beat? Which are the strong beats and weak beats? What are the factors that cause us to hear the beat of the music - the "meter" - in a certain way? This is what Chapter 2 of the book is all about.

Figure 2.6. While we generally assume that the beat will be regular, we can follow a beat even when there is some variation or irregularity - as in this case, where there is a "ritardando" (slowing down).

Figure 2.12. In this case, it's the repetition of the pattern that makes us hear a beat on every third note.

Figure 8.3. In this case, Beethoven fools us - we first think the piece will have a "duple meter" (with a strong beat on every second beat), but it then turns out to have a "triple meter" (with a strong beat on every third beat).

Figure 11.3. Does this excerpt (by Bartok) have any meter at all? What about Figure 11.4 (by Varese)?


Figure 4.1. When we hear a piece such as this (a Mozart piano sonata), we group the notes together into lines - a melody line, an accompaniment line, and others as well. What are the factors that cause us to group the notes into lines in a certain way? (This is the subject of chapter 4.)

Figure 4.2. We tend to group together notes that are close together in pitch. In this example, we hear two "interleaved" melodies, in which the notes of one alternate with the notes of another. If the melodies are clearly separated in pitch, they can be heard easily (the first excerpt). However, if they are close or overlapping in pitch, we tend to group them into a single line, thus obscuring the identity of the two melodies (the second excerpt).

Figure 4.3. There's a strong perceptual tendency to avoid hearing crossing lines. Figure 4.3 could be heard as two scales crossing over each other in an "X" pattern. Instead, we tend to hear them as a "V" shaped pattern containing the upper notes and an inverted-"V" containing the lower notes.

Figure 4.5. Another illustration of the perceptual tendency to avoid crossing lines. (See p. 90 of the book.) Two melodies are constructed which constantly cross over each other, and are played with different timbres. Rather than grouping the notes by timbre, however, we group them by "pitch proximity", thus avoiding crossing lines.

Figure 8.19. In this case, the notes form a single melody, but they can also be heard as forming two melodic lines. The notes of the lower line then join up with the second real line of the piece.

Figure 11.6. Some twentieth-century music, such as this piece by Boulez, is written in a "pointillistic" fashion that deliberately resists the grouping of notes into lines.


Figure 3.4. When we hear music, we understand the notes as forming chords or harmonies. (This is the subject of chapter 6.) Even a single melody has an implied harmonic structure. Listen to this melody; if you had to divide it into two phrases, where would you say the first phrase ends? In an experiment, most subjects heard the phrase ending after the tenth note. The reason for this is harmony; the implied harmony of the ninth and tenth notes suggests the end of a phrase.

Figure 6.1. Harmony also affects the key that is perceived. In this example, you hear the same four pitches arranged in two different ways. In the first case, they strongly imply a certain key; in the second case, the key is much more ambiguous. These effects can be explained in terms of the differing harmonies that are formed in the two cases.

Figure 11.14. In one experiment, pianists were given passages of music like this one, which contained harmonic "misprints" - notes that make no harmonic sense. Without even realizing it, they tended to "correct" the misprints.

Figure 5.3. We tend to perceive harmonies in "spatial" terms. Some harmonies are close together, others are far apart. In this excerpt, we hear five closely-related harmonies followed by a distant one.

Figure 11.10. Harmony plays an important role in musical expression. A change from one harmony to a very "distant" harmony can have a powerful emotional effect. Listen to the dramatic effect of the harmonic change halfway through this passage (from a Beethoven string quartet).

Figure 11.9. In this excerpt (from Brahms's violin concerto), a dramatic effect is caused by very rapid harmonic changes, which sometimes occur on very weak beats.

Figure 11.12. In this case (from a Beethoven sonata), a dramatic effect is achieved, once again, by a move to a distant harmony; the effect is increased further by the use of syncopation, an accented event on a weak beat.