Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Hearing Intervals

I'm (finally) reading David Huron's Sweet Anticipation: Music and the Psychology of Expectation. In fact, last night I was reading Chapter Seven out loud for Weasley, to help him calm down in his new crate. He apparently finds mental representations of pitch to be very soothing.

One section that struck me was David's debate about the perception of intervals. He thinks that he doesn't perceive the actual intervals, but rather hears the separate notes as scale degrees, which he can then use to identify the interval. I don't have the book with me right now, I'll add the relevant quote when I'm home later. But it is basically this: 1) hear two notes, 2) recognize that they sound like the beginning of "Here Comes the Bride," 3) therefore associating the second note as tonic 'Do' and the first note as 'Sol,' 4) identify the interval between Sol and Do as a Perfect Fourth. Many people would skip step 3 as a conscious part of their process, but it would still be a lower level association that helps them recognize the melody in the first place. Now, here is my issue. David says that following this process is identifying separate notes, and then figuring out the relationship (the interval), much like people with AP. But I don't see how one can identify the second note as Do without hearing the relationship between the two notes. I agree that consciously hearing a Perfect Fourth and hearing Sol - Do are different processes, but both still rely upon the relationship between the notes. This contrasts with the AP perception, which would be 1) hear two notes, 2) label the first note as B3, 3) label the second note as E4, 4) identify the interval between B3 and E4 as a Perfect Fourth. The two notes are given labels that do not depend upon the other note, whereas identifying one note as Do is to place both notes in a tonal context.

12 comments:

Tracy Krulik said...
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Scott said...

Yes. Here is the quote: "this raises the interesting hypothesis that I have no native mental code for melodic interval. Instead, I may have a scale-degree code, and perhaps a scale-degree dyad code. [...] I seem to identify the notes and then men tally infer the interval." (p. 117-118)

Humingway said...

Hmm. The identification of scale degree need not be based only on the relationship between those two notes, but rather on the collection as a whole.
Some intervals, such as tritones and semitones, are more important for "position-finding" than others.

Huron's account (from your summary at least; I haven't read the book either) feels right. I think I keep track of the tonic and other important referential pitches in the scale, then measure intervals around this framework without as much attention to the specific relationship between the two notes in question.

Does Huron's account leave space for this possibility?

Scott said...

Humingway (nice name), I agree with what you say, but Huron is talking about single pairs of notes, like in interval tests for ear training classes. He does also talk about larger collections later, and mentions that a perfect fourth on Mi-La is more difficult to identify than Sol-Do, so it isn't just identifying scale-degrees, but strongly associating pairs of scale degrees as expected to belong together.

Humingway said...

Oh, thanks for the clarification. So he uses the ear-training kind of interval identification (in isolation) as the foundation for explaining how we hear intervals in context.

I'd rather have it the other way around, and consider hearing "out of context" as a special skill that we learn by learning to listen well in context. After all, when people use melodic tricks to identify intervals ("Here Comes the Bride," "Maria," etc.) aren't they just providing context?

This doesn't directly answer your question: How can we tell where we are in a scale if we can't measure the distance between two notes? I'd say we don't have to measure the distance between ANY two notes; just a few key pairs will suffice. Once we've got those, the scale falls into place.

(Unfortunately, my theory suggests that people should be REALLY good at recognizing tritones even out of context, which I doubt is the case.)

Can Bass 1 said...

My word, isn't music complicated. Thank goodness I'm a singer!

Anonymous said...

What Huron describes is the process that used to be taught (maybe still is) in Soviet music schools: listen, identify the notes as beginning of a song you learned to associate with an interval, identify the interval. Figuring out scale degree was not necessary, just identifying the distance. At a later stage most people skipped the conscious application of first stages, but probably simply went through the process faster. Instead of Lohengrin we used the Soviet patriotic song "Wide is my homeland" for fourths, the ABC tune for fifths, and "Libiamo" for sixths; can't remember other interval signs.

Daniel Wolf said...
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Daniel Wolf said...

sn't an assertion that harmonic intervals are heard only or primarily melodically contradicted by recent neuroscience which suggest strongly that the same hardwiring for vowel perception is used to recognize harmonic structures. (See, for example, here: http://w1.570.telia.com/~u57011259/eng5.htm ) While more complex harmonic structures may well require other perception and cognition paths (tracking difference tones, for example), it seems highly likely that the harmonic material of common practice is well within the capacity of this function of the auditory midbrain.

Humingway said...

Daniel: That's a big claim. As far as I can tell, that page discusses how the brain identifies *pitches* based on the relationships among formants in a complex timbre. Scott's post was about identifying *intervals* between several complex tones. It might be just a higher-order version of the same problem, but it might not -- and it's a big leap to assume that the brain uses the same biological mechanism for the identification of pitches and intervals.

The question of melodic vs. harmonic hearing is interesting. Personally, I never had much luck with the Soviet-style melodic/mnemonic formulae, but many of my students find them helpful. This suggests to me that there isn't a single "natural way" to hear intervals.

Daniel Wolf said...

hummingway --

Isn't it actually a greater leap to suppose that intervals are recognized melodically a la Huron, as that requires a rather complex use of memory, both between the melodic pitches and in comparison with a source scale or reference tune using the same intervals. The model on Braun's website, in contrast, says that intervals can be recognized immediately, precisely through the same mechanism in which vowels are recognized.

Scott said...

Reading Martin's abstract, I don't think his results support the conclusion that harmonic intervals are readily identifiable. Rather, it shows that we have a tendency to identify a concurrent series of frequencies as a single pitch, as long as they fit in a harmonic series. So while we can identify individual melodic components (through context, I think Humingway is correct) we tend to fuse harmonic components. This is why we can perceive vowels from complex tones, rather than as dense chords.