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Probing the minor tonal hierarchy

Vuvan, D., Prince, J.ORCID: 0000-0002-8267-9963 and Schmuckler, M.A. (2009) Probing the minor tonal hierarchy. In: 2009 Biennial Conference. Society for Music Perception and Cognition, 3 - 6 August 2009, Indiana University - Purdue University, Indianapolis.


Previous perceptual work on Western tonal hierarchies has not investigated the subtleties inherent in theoretical descriptions of the minor key. This study was designed to rigorously test cognitive representations of the three forms of the minor scale (natural, harmonic, and melodic), and the effects of musical context type (chordal vs. scalar) thereon. It was predicted that participants would be able to differentiate between the three minor types, and furthermore that chord contexts might facilitate cognitive representations of the harmonic minor, whereas scale contexts might facilitate representations of the melodic minor.

Sixteen musician participants were presented with a musical context (chordal or scalar) that established one of the three forms of the minor tonal hierarchy. Next, participants rated how well a probe tone (consisting of one of the 12 chromatic pitches) fit with the preceding context, on a Likert scale of 1 to 7.

Most importantly, and as expected, participants‘ ratings distinguished between the three minor types, producing unique probe tone profiles corresponding closely to theoretical descriptions of the natural, harmonic, and melodic minor. Contrary to predictions regarding the effect of context, however, the minor tonal profiles did not differ across chordal and scalar contexts.

These findings demonstrate that musically trained listeners‘ cognitive representations of minor tonalities are sensitive to the differences among the three minor types. This finding helps fill an obvious, if neglected, gap in the music cognition literature.

Research Implications
Previous research into cognitive representations of the minor key has often assumed that listeners perceive all minor forms similarly, and has neglected to distinguish between the three types. This study shows that instead, musically trained listeners clearly process the natural, harmonic, and melodic minor distinctly.

Acknowledgement of Research Funding
This research was funded by a Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC) Discovery Grant awarded to Dr. Mark Schmuckler.

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