Testing Schenkerian theory: an experiment on the perception of key distances
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Citation (published version)Yust, J. (2012). Testing Schenkerian theory: An experiment on the perception of key distances. In Proceedings of the 12th International Conference on Music Perception and Cognition, ICMPC12 (pp. 1-172).
The lack of attention given to Schenkerian theory by empirical research in music is striking when compared to its status in music theory as a standard account of tonality. In this paper I advocate a different way of thinking of Schenkerian theory that can lead to empirically testable claims, and report on an experiment that shows how hypotheses derived from Schenker’s theories explain features of listener’s perception of key relationships. To be relevant to empirical research, Schenker’s theory must be treated as a collection of interrelated but independent theoretical claims rather than a comprehensive analytical method. These discrete theoretical claims can then lead to hypotheses that we can test through empirical methods. This makes it possible for Schenkerian theory improve our scientific understanding of how listeners understand tonal music. At the same time, it opens the possibility of challenging the usefulness of certain aspects of the theory. This paper exemplifies the empirical project with an experiment on the perception of key distance. The results show that two features of Schenkerian theory predict how listeners rate stimuli in terms of key distance. The first is the Schenkerian principle of “composing out” a harmony, and the second is the theory of “voice-leading prolongations.” In a regression analysis, both of these principles significantly improve upon a model of distance ratings based on change of scalar collection alone.