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Contributions of pitch contour, tonality, rhythm, and meter to melodic similarity

Prince, J.B. (2014) Contributions of pitch contour, tonality, rhythm, and meter to melodic similarity. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Human Perception and Performance, 40 (6). pp. 2319-2337.

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The identity of a melody resides in its sequence of pitches and durations, both of which exhibit surface details as well as structural properties. In this study, pitch contour (pattern of ups and downs) served as pitch surface information, and tonality (musical key) as pitch structure; in the temporal dimension, surface information was the ordinal duration ratios of adjacent notes (rhythm), and meter (beat, or pulse) comprised the structure. Factorially manipulating the preservation or alteration of all of these forms of information in 17 novel melodies (typifying Western music) enabled measuring their effect on perceived melodic similarity. In Experiment 1, 34 participants (varied musical training) rated the perceived similarity of melody pairs transposed to new starting pitches. Rhythm was the largest contributor to perceived similarity, then contour, meter, and tonality. Experiment 2 used the same melodies but varied the tempo within a pair, and added a prefix of 3 chords, which oriented the listener to the starting pitch and tempo before the melody began. Now contour was the strongest influence on similarity ratings, followed by tonality, and then rhythm; meter was not significant. Overall, surface features influenced perceived similarity more than structural, but both had observable effects. The primary theoretical advances in melodic similarity research are that (a) the relative emphasis on pitch and temporal factors is flexible; (b) pitch and time functioned independently when factorially manipulated, regardless of which dimension is more influential; and (c) interactions between surface and structural information were unreliable and never occurred between dimensions.

Publication Type: Journal Article
Murdoch Affiliation: School of Psychology and Exercise Science
Publisher: American Psychological Association
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