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General Themes

I group the themes we will cover in terms of Quality and Form, Memory, Emotion and Meaning, Mechanisms, and Origins. We will look at each of these themes in terms of several perspectives: the structure of sound, the perceptual psychology of hearing, our own internal experiences of sound and music, music theory and practice, the neuroscience of the auditory system and the brain at large, computational neuroscience and neural networks, and the psychology of perception, cognition, and memory.

Quality and Form involves how we distinguish different musical sounds: pitches, timbres, consonances, musical intervals, chords, melody, and rhythmic patterns. Some of the questions we will address involve how we perceive the basic elements and patterns of music: How do we distinguish pitches? When do sound-objects stand apart or fuse together? What pitches do we hear when a chord is sounded? Why do octaves sound similar? What are the acoustic and perceptual dimensions of timbre? How do we recognize melodies? Why do we perceive transposed melodies as being similar, essentially identical? How are individual events and their rhythmic organization perceived?

Memory involves how we experience sounds in the context of others that came before. Music unfolds over time on several timescales, from subtle differences in expressive timing to note-transitions to melodies and tonal centers to larger, longer structures of repetition and change. This involves memory on many levels - echoic memory, working memory, and long term memory. How do tonal and rhythmic expectations arise? What is their neural basis? How are temporal expectations created and violated? To what degree are these expectations universal and to what degree are they the result of cultural conditioning? How does music exploit them?

Emotion is an essential part of musical experience. We create and listen to music for our own pleasure. Why is music pleasurable in the first place? How is tension created and relieved? Why (how) is "expressive timing" expressive? Why does music (sometimes) have profound effects on our emotions? What is the neural basis of these effects? What areas of the brain are involved in emotion and meaning in music? How can highly artificial, highly unnatural structurings of sound have meaning for us? Are they tied to mechanisms/habits related to speech perception? Is musical meaning dependent on previous experience and cultural associations, or does it (also) emulate internal body-rhythms associated with our emotions?

Mechanisms concerns the neural processes that subserve our experience of music. How does the auditory system represent sounds? How (and why) are pitches at the fundamentals of harmonic complexes heard? What kinds of neural representations and information processing operations are involved? How does the nervous system carry out these operations? How much of the structure of music arises directly from the neural codes in the auditory system? How much arises through learned associations and modification of synaptic connections? What kinds of neural net models have been proposed to explain various aspects of musical experience? Which areas of the brain mediate our emotional reactions to music?

Origins concerns how we come to be able to deal with the highly complex structure of music. This can arise from evolutionarily-primitive general-purpose mechanisms, recent evolutionary adaptations, and/or associations/connections acquired in development. Is music perception and cognition parasitical on speech reception and language comprehension mechanisms or are there more general faculties for handling temporal patterns, sequences, and associations that support both music and language cognition? What are the similarities and differences between music and language? Is the perception of music a recently evolved capability (and if so, why), or is it based on basic perceptual and cognitive mechanisms that are much more ancient? Do animals have music (and if so, to what extent)? Do infants have music (and if so, to what extent)?

Since this course is focused on perception and cognition, there are many aspects of the psychology of music that we will only touch on tangentially: e.g. music and personality, music and cultural identity, musical talent and creative genius. If there is sufficient interest in these areas (as well as others), we will organize space to address them.


HST.723 (Neural Coding and Perception of Sound) or permission of instructor. The course will be as self-contained as possible. We will introduce the musical, physical, mathematical, psychological, and neuroscience concepts we need as we go along. Coverage of topics will begin with concrete musical listening examples, discuss the results of systematic psychological studies, and then delve into possible neural representations and mechanisms.


Deutsch, D., ed. The Psychology of Music. San Diego: Academic Press, 1999. ISBN: 0122135644.

Handel, S. Listening: An Introduction to the Perception of Auditory Events. MIT Press, 1989. ISBN: 0262081792.

Snyder, Bob. Music and Memory. MIT Press, 2000. ISBN: 0262194414.

McAdams, and Bigand. Thinking in Sound: The Cognitive Psychology of Human Audition. Oxford University Press, 1993. ISBN: 0198522584.

Aello, R., ed. Musical Perceptions. Oxford University Press, 1994. ISBN: 0195064755.

Moore, B. C. J. An Introduction to the Psychology of Hearing. 5th ed. San Diego: Academic Press, 2003. ISBN: 0125056281.


  • Weekly reading assignments and class discussions.
  • One long problem set.
  • A research paper, review paper, or research project (e.g. psychological or physiological experiment, computer model/simulation) related to the psychology of music.

Students are required to give oral presentations on their selected topics early in the term and present their project results at the end of the term. Final project papers (25-30 pp. double-spaced) are due on the last day of class.

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