Academic journal article Canadian Psychology

Music Cognition and the Cognitive Psychology of Film Structure

Academic journal article Canadian Psychology

Music Cognition and the Cognitive Psychology of Film Structure

Article excerpt


Early 20th century psychologists drew attention to similarities between mental processes elicited by film and by music. Contemporary film theorists have also noted analogous film and music structures, and contemporary psychologists have used musical metaphors in discussions of film perception and cognition. These psychological parallels have not been explored through experimental research, in part, because of scarce experimental psychological research on film in contrast to the vast amount on music. The present article proposes that music cognition research provides insight into the perception of formal structure in film, taking as support an analysis of the film The Red Violin. The analysis reveals similarities between film and music with respect to three kinds of musical structure: central reference (tonality), large-scale form (rondo), and small-scale form (motif). Experiments are proposed to reveal the similarity in the mental processes engaged by music and film for each of the three types of structure, respectively. The application of principles and methods of music cognition to film psychology supports the intuitions of early psychological film theorists. The approach also generalizes to other art forms.

No systematic study has been made of how films may be based on repetitions and variations, but most critics implicitly recognize the importance of these processes. (Bordwell & Thompson, 1999, p. 87)

Like cognitive psychology, the subfield of music cognition has flourished over the last three decades. Recent extensions to the context of film (Cohen, 1994, 2000a) have investigated influences of music on film interpretation (Bolivar, Cohen, & Fentress, 1994; Boltz, 2001; Thompson, Russo, & Sinclair, 1994), film memory (Boltz, 2001; Cohen, 2000b), and visual attention (Lipscomb, 1999; Marshall & Cohen, 1988). The present article, however, focuses on the similarities in cognitive processes that music and film each evokes rather than on the effects of music on the mental processing of film. Emphasis on similarities of music and film finds precedents in early 20th century experimental psychology and film theory. Curiously, these first music-film analogies faded into obscurity, possibly because no experimental psychology of film was developed for comparison with music. Nonetheless, similarities between music and film processes emerge once again in contemporary experimental psychology and film theory. The present article first reviews these historic and recent analogies between music and film and then examines one film in particular from the perspective of music cognition. It is argued that if past precedents are correct and music and film exploit similar cognitive processes, then recent research in music cognition should facilitate understanding of film cognition.


Film, unlike most arts, emerged after the beginning of experimental psychology. The first commercial films were shown around the start of the 20th century, and film entertainment became generally accessible about a decade later. Initially the appeal of film was two-fold: first, as the new phenomenal experience of the motion picture medium, or the photoplay as Americans called it, and second, as the content of the film be it story or documentary. Notably, the period just prior to and after the First World War was the only epoch in the Western world during which an audience encountered film first as adults rather than as children. Thus, early psychologists might have had insights about the new film medium that can never again be obtained.

Behaviourism, with its focus on observable behaviour, gained a foothold in experimental psychology at this time. Nevertheless, mental experience still found a following in psychology departments. The rise of motion pictures fostered interest in the stroboscopic effect of apparent motion, fundamental to the illusion of continuity on the screen (Ash, 1995, p. …

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