COMD Seminar: “Psychoacoustic Foundations of Major-Minor Tonality”, Richard Parncutt, 12:30Noon May 29 2024 (EN)

Richard Parncutt
Professor of Systematic Musicology at the University of Graz, Austria

Title: Psychoacoustic Foundations of Major-Minor Tonality

Date: Wednesday, May 29, 12:30
Place: FFB-08

Abstract: How does everyday Western music work? Why do the tones, melodies, and chords combine as they do? Despite a century of tonal modernism and global cultural interaction, most Western and Westernized music is still structured around major and minor scales and chords. Why is that? Countless thinkers have struggled to explain the nature and origin of musical structures. New progress can be made by combining approaches from music theory and music psychology. Relevant music-theoretic foundations include Rameau’s fundamental bass, Riemann’s harmonic function, Schenker’s hierarchic analysis, and Forte’s pitch-class set theory. Psychological foundations include Bregman’s auditory scene, Terhardt’s virtual pitch, and Krumhansl’s tonal hierarchy. Drawing in addition on statistical analyses of notated music corpora, we can chart a middle path between cultural relativism and scientific positivism and bring music theory into meaningful discourse with empirical research. Our musical subjectivity depends on our past musical experience and hence on music history and its social contexts. It also depends on physical sound properties – investigated in psychoacoustical experiments and tested with mathematical models. An evidence-based approach to major-minor tonality draws on all relevant academic disciplines to create a theory that is comprehensive, creative, and critical, and can shed new light on familiar music-theoretic concepts: interval, consonance, chord root, leading tone, harmonic progression, modulation. Such a theory also promises to separate aspects of major-minor tonality that are based on human biology or general perceptual principles from those that are culturally arbitrary.