The Perception of Tonal Structure Through the Differentiation and Organization of Pitches

Nicholas A. Smith, Mark A. Schmuckler

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

34 Scopus citations


The role of 2 psychological processes, differentiation and organization, were examined in the perception of musical tonality. Differentiation distinguishes elements from one another and was varied in terms of the distribution of pitch durations within tone sequences. Organization establishes relations between differentiated elements and was varied in terms of either conformity with or deviation from a hierarchical description of tonality. Multiple experiments demonstrated that the perception of tonality depended on a minimal degree of differentiation in the distribution of the duration - but not frequency of occurrence - of pitches and only when pitch distributions were hierarchically organized. Moreover, the mere differentiation of the tonic from nontonic pitches was not sufficient to induce tonal percepts. These results are discussed in relation to tonal strength, musical expressiveness, and principles of auditory pattern processing.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)268-286
Number of pages19
JournalJournal of Experimental Psychology: Human Perception and Performance
Issue number2
StatePublished - Apr 2004
Externally publishedYes

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Experimental and Cognitive Psychology
  • Arts and Humanities (miscellaneous)
  • Behavioral Neuroscience


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