Tonal music theory: A psychoacoustic explanation?

Milne, Andrew J. (2010). Tonal music theory: A psychoacoustic explanation? In: Proceedings of the International Conference of Music Perception and Cognition 2010 (ICMPC 11), 23-27 Aug 2010, Seattle, USA.


From the seventeenth century to the present day, tonal harmonic music has had a number of invariant properties such as the use of specific chord progressions (cadences) to induce a sense of closure, the asymmetrical privileging of certain progressions, and the privileging of the major and minor scales.

The most widely accepted explanation has been that this is due to a process of enculturation: frequently occurring musical patterns are learned by listeners, some of whom become composers and replicate the same patterns, which go on to influence the next “generation” of composers, and so on. In this paper, however, I present a possible psychoacoustic explanation for some important regularities of tonal-harmonic music. The core of the model is two different measures of pitch-based distance between chords. The first is voice-leading distance; the second is spectral pitch distance—a measure of the distance between the partials in one chord compared to those in another chord.

I propose that when a pair of triads has a higher spectral distance than another pair of triads that is voice-leading-close, the former pair is heard as an alteration of the latter pair, and seeks resolution. I explore the extent to which this model can predict the familiar tonal cadences described in music theory (including those containing tritone substitutions), and the asymmetries that are so characteristic of tonal harmony. I also show how it may be able to shed light upon the privileged status of the major and minor scales (over the modes).

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