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Music cognition is an interdisciplinary field involving such disparate areas as cognitive science, music theory, psychology, musicology, neuroscience, computer science, philosophy, psychoacoustics, etc. The field aspires to account for the underlying mental processes that occur when people listen to music or perform music.


Music cognition clearly came to be recognized as a discipline in the early 1980's, with the creation of the Society for Music Perception and Cognition, European Society for the Cognitive Sciences of Music, and the journal Music Perception. The field of music cognition focuses on how the mind makes sense of music as it is heard. It also deals with the related question of the cognitive processes involved when musicians perform music. Like language, music is a uniquely human capacity that arguably played a central role in the origins of human cognition. The ways in which music can illuminate fundamental issues in cognition have been underexamined, or even dismissed as epiphenomenal. However, cognition in music is more and more acknowledged as fundamental to our understanding of cognition as a whole, hence music cognition should be able to contribute both conceptually and methodologically to cognitive science. Topics in the field include the following and others:

  • A listener's perception of grouping structure (motives, phrases, sections, etc.)
  • Rhythm and meter (perception and production)
  • Key inference
  • Expectation (including melodic expectation).
  • Musical similarity
  • Emotional response
  • Expressive, musical performance

Some aspects of cognitive music theory describe how sound is perceived by a listener. While the study of human interpretations of sound is called psychoacoustics, the cognitive aspects of how listeners interpret sounds as musical events is commonly known as music cognition. In music, sound waves are usually measured not by length (or wavelength) or period, but by frequency.

Every object has a resonant frequency which is determined by the object's composition. The different frequencies at which the sound producers of many instruments vibrate are given by the harmonic series. The resonators of musical instruments are designed to exploit these frequencies. Different instruments have different timbres due to variation in the size and shape of the instrument as well as the choice of materials from which the parts of the instrument are constructed.

A note is generally perceived as a sound on a single pitch. Notes have a regular wave beat on the eardrum that humans (and perhaps animals as well) find pleasing. This may be in part due to the fact that from the moment the hearing function becomes available to an unborn child, there is the regular rhythm of the mother's heartbeat.

Often the fundamental aspects of sound and music are described as pitch, duration, intensity, and timbre.


Musical sounds are composed of pitch, duration, and timbre. Pitch is determined by the sound's frequency of vibration, such as A440, which vibrates at 440 Hz. Pitches may be related by interval, their relative distance from a reference pitch. Tuning is the process of assigning pitches to notes. The difference in pitch between two notes is called an interval. Notes, in turn, can be arranged into different scales and modes. The most common scales are major, harmonic minor, melodic minor, and pentatonic.


In the 1970s, music was studied in the sciences mainly for its acoustical and perceptual properties, in what were then relatively novel disciplines such as psychophysics and music psychology. Music scholars criticized much of this research for focusing too much on low-level issues of sensation and perception, often using impoverished stimuli (e.g., small rhythmic fragments) or music restricted to the Western classical repertoire, as well as a general unawareness of the role of music in its wider social and cultural context. However, the cognitive revolution made scientists more aware of the role and importance of these aspects. While twenty years ago, music was hardly mentioned in any handbook of psychology (or appeared only in a subsection on pitch or rhythm perception), it is now recognized, along with vision and language, as an important and informative domain in which to study a variety of aspects of cognition, including expectation, emotion, perception, and memory. The role of music scholars and scientists in this research seems to be greater than ever. It could well be that music cognition will evolve into a prominent discipline contributing to our understanding of cognition as a whole.

See also[]


Introductory Reading[]

Intermediate Reading[]

  • Dowling, W. Jay and Harwood, Dane L. (1986) Music Cognition. San Diego: Academic Press. ISBN 0-12-221430-7.
  • Krumhansl, Carol L. (2001) Cognitive Foundations of Musical Pitch. Oxford: Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-514836-3.
  • Sloboda, John A. (1985) The Musical Mind: The Cognitive Psychology of Music. Oxford: Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-852128-6.
  • Lerdahl, F., and Jackendoff, R. (1996) A Generative Theory of Tonal Music. The MIT Press. ISBN 978-0262621076.
  • Temperley, D. (2004) The Cognition of Basic Musical Structures. The MIT Press. ISBN 978-0262701051.
  • Zbikowski, Lawrence M., (2004) Conceptualizing Music: Cognitive Structure, Theory, and Analysis. Oxford University Press, USA. ISBN 978-0195140231.

Journal Articles[]

External links[]

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