Academic journal article International Journal of Psychological Studies

Dynamic Cues in Key Perception

Academic journal article International Journal of Psychological Studies

Dynamic Cues in Key Perception

Article excerpt


The traditional idea of pitch full-set alone cannot explain different key perceptions for melodies that consist of the same pitch full-set but differ in pitch sequence. Three experiments, in which presentation styles, participant groups, and stimulus sets were manipulated independently, traced the process of key development back from a final stage of key identification to earlier stages of listening to a melody. In all the experiments, two results were confirmed: First, key responses in earlier stages influenced those in later stages to the extent that subsequent tones correspond to scale tones of a previously interpreted key, revealing a phenomenon termed perceptual inertia. Second, when multiple keys were possible, listeners tended to perceive the diatonic key that can contain more pitch classes within a pitch set given at the point of time as stable scale tones of that key (i.e., tonic triad).

Keywords: Cognition, Music perception, Tonality, Musical training

1. Introduction

When a sequence of tones is organized perceptually as a "melody", listeners perceive a key associated with the sequence, regardless of their ability to consciously name it. What kinds of properties in an arbitrary melody function as cues for perceiving the musical key? To date, a large number of studies addressing this issue, at least implicitly, rely upon the concept of "pitch full-set" of the whole melody (e.g., Abe & Hoshino, 1990; Balzano, 1982; Longuet-Higgins, 1987; Kumhansl, 1990). This idea holds that the set of all pitch classes present within a complete melody, regardless of the temporal ordering of these pitch classes, is critical to identifying the melody's key. Considerable evidence supports this position (e.g., Abe & Hoshino, 1990; Krumhansl & Kessler, 1982; Schmuckler & Tomovski, 2005). Specifically, these studies have demonstrated that listeners who are familiar with Western music identify the key of a melody by assimilating all of its constituent pitch classes of a given pitch full-set into the Western diatonic tonal schema. Consider, for example, a tone sequence consisting of six pitch classes [C, D, E, G, A, B] (Note 1). Because all six pitch classes are scale tones of each of C major, G major, E minor, and A minor (Note 2) listeners presumably should identify the melody as one of the four keys.

Krumhansl (1990) further developed the idea that a distribution of occurrence frequency of pitch classes within a given pitch full-set serves as the dominant cue for perceiving a key. This hypothesis posits that a listener is very sensitive to the relative frequency (or duration) of pitch classes that occur in the given pitch full-set. Krumhansl and Schumuckler proposed a key-finding computational model based on the idea of pitch class distributions (the K-S algorithm model). This algorithm calculates correlation coefficients between each of 24 key profiles (c.f. Krumhansl & Kessler, 1982) and a pattern of occurrence frequency of each pitch class employed in a melody; the key profile yielding the highest correlation determines the preferred key.

Although powerful, the idea of pitch full-set cannot account for all listeners' key responses. Consider the two melodies shown in Figure 1 (from Matsunaga & Abe, 2009). Both have the same pitch full-set, [C, D, E, G, A, B], but they differ in the sequential arrangement of these pitch classes. If pitch full-set alone serves as the critical cue to key, then listeners should judge both melodies as having the same key. Indeed, this is predicted by the K-S algorithm. Calculating correlations between each key profile and a pattern of occurrence frequency of pitch classes in each of the two melodies, the K-S algorithm gives G major as the most preferred key for both melodies. This algorithm evaluates the likelihood of each of four diatonic keys for the pitch full-set [C, D, E, G, A, B], assuming that the frequency distribution of these six pitch classes is uniform and that all classes have the same time values: G major (r=. …

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