Tonality in Music Arises from Perceptual Organization

Perceptual organization of melodic embellishment

The perception of tonality has been commonly attributed to the properties of pitch structure, with little attention paid to the role of temporal structure. My dissertation proposes a new psychological theory based on the idea that the perceived sense of tonality, including stability and tendency, arises from the low-level mental processes of perceptual organization through which individual tones in a melodic surface are structured into coherent and articulate tonal-temporal units. The role of low-level (primitive) grouping/segmentation in the perceptual organization of tonal structure is emphasized in an effort to bring light on the bottom-up (stimulus-driven) aspects of tonality perception which have been largely neglected in both music theory and music cognition. Also discussed in light of the proposed theory are the relationship between tonal hierarchies and event hierarchies, the bottom-up and top-down (knowledge-driven) sources of tonal stability, perceptual mechanisms involved in pitch centricity and melodic anchoring, processing advantages in the law of return, and the distinction between sensory consonance and musical consonance.