Research Article: Cognitive and affective judgements of syncopated musical themes

Date Published: December 22, 2011

Publisher: University of Finance and Management in Warsaw

Author(s): Peter E. Keller, Emery Schubert.


This study investigated cognitive and emotional effects of syncopation, a feature
of musical rhythm that produces expectancy violations in the listener by
emphasising weak temporal locations and de-emphasising strong locations in
metric structure. Stimuli consisting of pairs of unsyncopated and syncopated
musical phrases were rated by 35 musicians for perceived complexity, enjoyment,
happiness, arousal, and tension. Overall, syncopated patterns were more enjoyed,
and rated as happier, than unsyncopated patterns, while differences in perceived
tension were unreliable. Complexity and arousal ratings were asymmetric by
serial order, increasing when patterns moved from unsyncopated to syncopated,
but not significantly changing when order was reversed. These results suggest
that syncopation influences emotional valence (positively), and that while
syncopated rhythms are objectively more complex than unsyncopated rhythms, this
difference is more salient when complexity increases than when it decreases. It
is proposed that composers and improvisers may exploit this asymmetry in
perceived complexity by favoring formal structures that progress from
rhythmically simple to complex, as can be observed in the initial sections of
musical forms such as theme and variations.

Partial Text

Successful composers know how to structure musical materials in order to maintain the
listener’s attention and to modulate their cognitive and affective state. One
apparent consideration that composers seem to be aware of, we believe, concerns the
serial ordering of musical patterns that vary in complexity. There is evidence in
psychological, and in particular auditory-perceptual literature that a transition
from structurally simple to complex, soft to loud, and consonant to dissonant is
more salient than the reverse (loud to soft, etc., e.g., Huron, 1992; Schellenberg,
2001). The present research examined whether there are cognitive and
affective implications of creating music that moves from simple to complex or the
reverse. To this end, we manipulated a quantifiable aspect of rhythm – degree
of syncopation – to create musical materials composed of various serially
ordered combinations of simple (and unsyncopated) and complex (and syncopated)
melodies. As will be explained in more detail below, syncopation is
characterised by the emphasis of weak locations in metric structure and de-emphasis
of strong metric locations, causing a momentary violation of the listener’s
temporal expectancies. For the sake of experimental rigour, we focused on short,
specially-composed pieces, and monitored self-reported cognitive and affective
responses to changes in the degree of syncopation.

The aim of this study was to examine the cognitive and affective responses to musical
rhythms that varied in degree of syncopation. We were particularly interested in the
cognitive and affective implications of creating music in which rhythmic structure
moves from simple to complex or vice versa. Our underlying motivation was related to
psychological processes that may drive preferences (by composers, improvisers, and
listeners) for simple themes followed by more complex variations, rather than the
reverse, in musical forms such as theme and variations. We discuss the results
according to the four specific research questions of the study.

The findings of the current study suggest that the serial ordering of rhythm patterns
that vary in complexity (unsyncopated to syncopated vs. syncopated to unsyncopated)
influences the perceived complexity and emotional content of music. Whereas the
enjoyment and perceived happiness of musical rhythms are modulated symmetrically
with increases and decreases in syncopation between short musical phrases, perceived
complexity is heightened with increasing syncopation but remains constant in the
face of decreasing syncopation. This asymmetry in perceived complexity (which also
characterizes perceived arousal to some degree) has implications for the cognitive
processing and aesthetic appreciation of musical rhythmic structure. Successful
composers and improvisers may be sensitive to these implications, and consequently
favor musical forms in which progression from simple to complex material is more
prevalent than the reverse.




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