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Unlocking Key: A Formal Cognitive Model

Unlocking Key: A Formal Cognitive Model

Presenter Name:Konrad Swierczek

School/Affiliation:McMaster University

Co-Authors:Max Delle Grazie, Karen Chan, Matthew Woolhouse


Musical key, the hierarchical organization of pitch in a piece of music, is a central part of the perception of western tonal harmony. Even listeners without formal musical training are adept at detecting key, along with its referential pitch, or tonic.  Traditional music theory and some recent psychological models of musical key tend to focus on diatonic set membership, determining key by evaluating what diatonic set best fits a piece of music. However, since the 19th century, western tonal harmonic music has grown to include complex harmonic features such as chromaticism (the use of notes outside of the diatonic set) and the more frequent use of modulation (changes in key). Given that these compositional techniques are often used in popular music up to the present day and often do not inhibit the perception of key, we hypothesize that tonal attraction (the perception of pull, push, tension, momentum, and inertia in music) plays a role in the perceptual determination of a musical key.  The proposed formal model of key uses a combination of Interval Cycle Proximity (a measure of tonal attraction), the rare intervals hypothesis (diatonic set membership), short term memory, pitch salience, and sensory dissonance to predict the perception of key across a piece of music by encultured listeners. The predictions of the model will change our understanding of musical structure and provide new insights into previously ambiguous music as well as compositional techniques.

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