Cognitive constraints on music listening

William Forde Thompson, E. G. Schellenberg

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapterResearchpeer-review


Studies of music perception and cognition adopt a variety of theoretical viewpoints and use a diverse range of methods and analytic approaches. A survey of recent articles reveals a richly interdisciplinary field, comprising studies that range from psychophysical investigations of isolated tones to examinations of long musical segments in tonal, atonal, and non-Western styles. Although cognition is often distinguished from perception, we will not delimit our discussion in this manner. Some perceptual phenomena, such as visual illusions, are relatively impervious to learning (e.g., knowledge of the illusion does not make it disappear), but most perceptual tasks elicit knowledge structures to some extent. The terms perception and cognition represent different points on a continuum of research on mental processing, which ranges from studies of automatic processes that depend little on experience to studies of processes that depend critically on learning and knowledge.

Research measures also vary widely. They include results of neuroimaging techniques, responses to music by special populations (e.g., brain-damaged patients, individuals with Williams's syndrome), aesthetic judgments, measurements taken from music performances, infants' responses to musical stimuli, and subjective ratings of musical stimuli obtained from musically trained or untrained adults and children. Consequently, a vast and confusing body of data has been accumulated that has yet to be embedded within a widely accepted framework for understanding music cognition. The development of such a framework has been hampered by differences in opinion on at least three issues of substance: the relative contributions of innate structures and exposure to music, the most appropriate level at which to investigate and explain music cognition, and the kinds of stimuli and methods that are most appropriate for studying relevant cognitive processes and mechanisms.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationThe New Handbook of Research on Music Teaching and Learning: A Project of the Music Educators National Conference
EditorsRichard Colwell, Carol Richardson
PublisherOxford University Press
ISBN (Print)9780195138849
Publication statusPublished - 9 May 2002
Externally publishedYes


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