Music Perception

The relationship between music perception studied in the laboratory and as it occurs in real life
17 Feb, 2016

Music Perception is a chapter from 'Listening in the world: Behavioral and neurobiological bases of complex-sound perception. Frontiers of Bioscience (special issue), 2007

By Diana Deutsch, Department of Psychology, University of California.


This chapter explores the relationship between music perception as it is studied in the laboratory and as it occurs in the real world. We first examine general principles by which listeners group musical tones into perceptual configurations, and how these principles are implemented in music composition and performance. We then show that, for certain types of configuration, the music as it is perceived can differ substantially from the music that is notated in the score, or as might be imagined from reading the score. Furthermore, there
are striking differences between listeners in the perception of certain musical passages. Implications of these findings are discussed.


The study of music perception encompasses a broad range of phenomena, including the perception of basic attributes of sound such as pitch, duration, and loudness, the principles by which lower-level features are extracted so as to produce higher-level features, the perception of large-scale musical structures, cultural influences on music perception, developmental issues, aberrations of music perception; and so on. The present chapter focuses on certain issues that are particularly applicable to the perception of music in the real world. First, we consider general principles of perceptual organization and show how they are applied to live musical situations. Second, we show that music as perceived can, for certain configurations, be quite different from that in the written score, or as might be imagined from reading a score. Instead, striking illusions can occur on listening to music, and there are strong differences between listeners in the way that some of these illusions are perceived. In some cases, such perceptual differences correlate with handedness, and so can be taken to reflect variations in innate brain organization. In the case of another illusion, perceptual differences correlate with the language or dialect to which the listener has been exposed, particularly in childhood, and point to an influence of exposure to extramusical phenomena on the perception of music.

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