Tuesday, March 15, 2005

Jay Dowling on Music Cognition

As I mentioned, today in Cognition we heard a guest lecture by Jay Dowling, apparently the world leader in the study of music cognition and perception (with over 1,400 publication referrals). While the concepts he covered were incredibly interesting, I felt a bit bad for the majority of students in the class with no musical background. He blew through discussions of key context and such without pausing to look back, and most had no idea what he was talking about.

Personally, I found the most interesting bit to be the divisions he makes of all sound pitch into a hierarchy, namely:
  • Psychophysical function - the infinitely divisible range of pitch we can hear

  • Tonal material - 5 to 9 basic tones defined by each culture

  • Tuning system - those tones that form the roots of scales or keys

  • Modal scale - do, ray, me, fa, so, etc.

The idea, basically, is that each and every culture has selected between five and nine specific tones out of the psycophysical function to serve as "correct notes." In the Western European tradition, of course, that is CDEFGAB. Each culture that chooses it's own scale conditions its citizens to adopt that scale as natural. Therefore, when we hear a note at 440hz it sounds perfectly in tune, while 444hz is sharp. 444hz in another culture, however, may be the center of a note. It's all relative. From those 5-9 notes, octaves can be reached according to a logarithmic scale. Every culture uses similar names for each note across the octaves. A is still A one octave up, for example.

That is about as much sense as I can make out of it. Music majors would probably laugh at me, but hey. I'm no music major.

Ah, and yesterday I participated in my first Psych experiment, testing my smelling abilities while sitting and lying down. It was fun, but they could have used a nicer smelling chemical. I had hoped it would be food. It wasn't. They confirmed, though, that I have a superior sense of smell!


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