A Derivation of the Tonal Hierarchy from Basic Perceptual Processes

David Smey, City University of New York, Graduate Center


In recent decades music psychologists have explained the functioning of tonal music in terms of the tonal hierarchy, a stable schema of relative structural importance that helps us interpret the events in a passage of tonal music. This idea has been most influentially disseminated by Carol Krumhansl in her 1990 monograph Cognitive Foundations of Musical Pitch. Krumhansl hypothesized that this sense of the importance or centrality of certain tones of a key is learned through exposure to tonal music, in particular by learning the relative frequency of appearance of the various pitch classes in tonal passages. The correlation of pitch-class quantity and structural status has been the subject of a number of successful studies, leading to the general acceptance of the pitch-distributional account of tonal hierarchy in the field of music psychology.

This study argues that the correlation of pitch-class quantity with structural status is a byproduct of other, more fundamental perceptual properties, all of which are derived from aspects of everyday listening. Individual chapters consider the phenomena of consonance and dissonance, intervallic rootedness, the short-term memory for pitch collection, and the interaction of temporal ordering and voice-leading that Jamshed Bharucha calls melodic anchoring. The study concludes with an elaborate self-experiment that observes the interaction of these properties in a pool of 275 stimuli, each of which is constructed from a single dyad plus one subsequent tone.