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Music Experts’ Changing Perceptions of Mode Across Musical Eras

Music Experts’ Changing Perceptions of Mode Across Musical Eras

Name:Aditi, Shukla

School/Affiliation:McMaster University

Co-Authors:Cameron J. Anderson, Michael Schutz

Virtual or In-person:In-person


Mode is a syntactical cue strongly linked to the perception of musical emotion. The major and minor modes—often associated with positive and negative emotions, respectively—provide the structural basis of many Western classical compositions. Although the major/minor distinction is useful for distinguishing Classical music composed between the 18th and 20th centuries, empirical studies algorithmically evaluating mode suggest that the distinction between modes blurred between the Baroque (~1600–1750) and late Romantic (~1850–1899) eras. Paired with mode’s subjectivity, this reduction in distinction has resulted in high-profile disagreements among expert music theorists when evaluating mode in famous musical works. Nevertheless, differences in experts’ perspectives hold valuable insight for understanding the perception of this important structural cue. To explore changes in mode over time while capturing differences in perspective among experts, we developed a protocol for rating mode in works composed across four eras (Baroque, Classical, Romantic, and 20th century; Delle Grazie et al., under review). Five music experts from Western University read and listened to 381 excerpts and engaged in a modality-rating procedure. The experts first rated pieces individually, then discussed the rationale for their ratings in a series of 13 weekly meetings, and lastly finalized their ratings during three weeks of independent review. Preliminary analyses show a stronger modal distinction in the Baroque and Romantic eras, and a weaker modal distinction in the 20th century. Further exploration will reveal how modern listeners change their perception of mode across musical eras, providing insight into musical shifts over time.

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