Music and Sound Research

Music Expectation and Attention

In language and music, expectation plays a key role in our processing of a linguistic or musical phrase. Among the theories of musical expectations, Eugene Narmour’s implication-realization model is the most studied in empirical research. A student in our program tested Narmour’s concepts of pitch proximity and reversal, testing these principles of melodic continuation in 4-5 year-old children enrolled in childhood music classes and comparing their expectations to those of adult music students. Children played a musical game with a small puppet, making him jump into high or low boxes based on whether children expected melodies to continue in upward or downward contours. Their expectancies did not differ significantly from those of adults, whose responses accorded well with Narmour’s theories. Testing with younger children or infants may help clarify the role of early musical experience in shaping these expectations.

Another student research project uses principles from Bregman’s auditory scene analysis and Lerdahl and Jackendoff’s preference-rule system to explain what draws the listener’s attention to a particular musical voice in multi-part music. Her experiments test a series of preference rules by constructing stimuli that differ only with respect to that rule (e.g., chromaticism in one voice, change of timbre, etc.) and testing subjects’ memory for small cue cells drawn from the passage to demonstrate that cells with the property (chromaticism, timbre change) are better remembered than those without. Her work helps us understand how listeners segment and remember aspects of an auditory scene, and promises to accord well with the “Machines that Listen” research described above.