Academic journal article Psychonomic Bulletin & Review

Melody Recognition Revisited: Influence of Melodic Gestalt on the Encoding of Relational Pitch Information

Academic journal article Psychonomic Bulletin & Review

Melody Recognition Revisited: Influence of Melodic Gestalt on the Encoding of Relational Pitch Information

Article excerpt

Published online: 28 May 2014

© Psychonomic Society, Inc. 2014

Abstract Melody recognition entails the encoding of pitch intervals between successive notes. While it has been shown that a whole melodic sequence is better encoded than the sum of its constituent intervals, the underlying reasons have remained opaque. Here, we compared listeners' accuracy in encoding the relative pitch distance between two notes (for example, C, E) of an interval to listeners accuracy under the following three modifications: (1) doubling the duration of each note (C - E -), (2) repetition of each note (C, C, E, E), and (3) adding a preceding note (G, C, E). Repeating (2) or adding an extra note (3) improved encoding of relative pitch distance when the melodic sequences were transposed to other keys, but lengthening the duration (1) did not improve encoding relative to the standard two-note interval sequences. Crucially, encoding accuracy was higher with the four-note sequences than with long two-note sequences despite the fact that sensory (pitch) information was held constant. We interpret the results to show that re-forming the Gestalts of two-note intervals into two-note "melodies" results in more accurate encoding of relational pitch information due to a richer structural context in which to embed the interval.

Keywords Music · Melody · Gestalt · Interval · Pitch · Recognition


Humans can easily recognize, reproduce, and remember melodies-sequences of musical notes. Except for extreme populations (e.g., listeners with absolute pitch or amusia), normal listeners recognize melodies based largely upon the relative sizes of the intervals between successive pitches, an ability still robustly preserved even when the entire frequency range of the music is shifted up or down (i.e., the key is changed). Relative pitch processing may be, if not innate, acquired early in development. For example, Plantinga and Trainor (2005) established that 5.5- to 6.5-month-old infants, after listening to a melody for 7 days, preferred to listen to a novel melody rather than the original melody, regardless of the key in which the original was played at test. Their subsequent experiment mied out a possibility that the infants remembered absolute pitch information, suggesting that, like adults, their long-term representation of the melody was based on the sequence of relative-pitch intervals between tones. Electrophysiological studies have indicated that relative pitch interval processing occurs in an automatic fashion, even among non-musicians (Trainor et al., 2002). For example, Trainor et al. (2002) showed that an occasional deviation of ending note position (i.e., outside of the key) elicited a mismatch negativity (MMN)-a brain response commonly regarded as an indicator of automatic change detection in the absence of attention towards a stimulus.

Intriguingly, relative pitch information is better encoded when the length of the melodic sequence is increased to some extent, suggesting that greater melody note-count confers perceptual benefits in encoding relational pitch information. For example, Edworthy (1985) showed that recognizing a note that deviated from a key became easier as the number of notes in the melody increased. An influential theoretical model, the Krumhansl-Schmuckler key-finding algorithm, suggests that greater melody-note-count provides "tonal context," which helps listeners establish the sense of key (Kmmhansl, 1990). The key is an important framework that defines the relations between pitches that follow a particular musical rule (e.g., diatonic major scale) when they are transposed. Thus, tonality-the sense of key-is one of the primary factors that may contribute to efficient encoding of melodies.

There is evidence that adding one extra note to interval sequences is enough to improve relative pitch recognition (Cuddy & Cohen, 1976). Cuddy and Cohen initially tested the hypothesis that recognition of three-note melodies could be modeled as a linear combination of the recognition of individual two-note intervals constituting the sequence. …

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