top of page
  • Writer's pictureWikus van der Walt

Using Music Psychology Research to Hear and Create Music in New Ways

Recently I picked up the book Psychology and music: the understanding of melody and rhythm

Edited by Tighe and Dowling. Even though this book is from 1993, it still holds several interesting ideas for composers, musicians and non-experts in the field of music psychology. As both melody and rhythm are such key musical elements, it is interesting to note how many professional musicians stay clear of intersection of art and science. The famed Bell Laboratory research Max Matthews said it best when he said, no matter the technological progress that will be made in the future, it is rather the understanding of how engage with the pleasure centres of the brain that will lead to greatest progress in music.

As this text is an edited text from various authors and focussing on different topics, the reader, can delve deeply into this complex, and misunderstood but guided by intuition, topic. An interesting concept present in chapter 4: Dynamics of Musical Patterns: How Do Melody and Rhythm Fit Together? by Mari Riess Jones, is how melody, and in fact harmony, cannot be without the presence of rhythm. One key idea presented here is that of the Joint Accent Structure as well as Temporal Phasing. It is actually a strikingly simple idea, which for the composer and improvising musician can lead to many interesting ideas. Here is an example of a melody, with an indication if the note is approached by step or leap:

A common rhythmical structure is to have 2 shorter values followed by a long value, note that the stress is on the long note value:

Underlying is the metric stress, which is further stressed by the scalar stress, especially in the second bar due to the leap:

Creating a phase shift can be both positive and negative, both example shown below are positive shown by the indicated value:

Note the addition of a time keeping device, as it may be troublesome to here the shifted metric stress.


Practical Application

As can be heard from the above example, it is familiar, but most listeners won't immediately pick this up as some part the famous Greensleves, unless what Daniel Kahneman described as primed with the original, and then point out of if it is the same or different tune or not. Thus, these basic ideas can be very useful for a composer or music producer to explore. Firstly, freely draw the contour of a [famous tune] on a piece of paper, discarding any notion of rhythm. Then choose a rhythmical pattern or fragment. Write a new melody, based on the drawn contour and the selected rhythmical pattern, selected a tempo and use this as a starting point for exploring melodic ideas. This can be especially useful for those moments when melodic inspiration has run dry. If this is not adventures enough. Take the pitches of the newly created melody, then temporally shift it either back or forward relative to the selected rhythmical patter. Rinse, repeat, and new melodic material will come to live.

The simple reason is that the dynamic accent structure has changed, which in turn leads to the listener experiencing this melody as a unique melodic construction.

In chapter 3 of the book James Bartlett explore how melodic structures are experienced. The concepts of pattern goodness and perceived alternatives are explored here, as if the listener concludes, subconsciously, that the melody is has a good structure, and no clear alternative is suggested, then the listener will experience the melody as unique. If one then frames this in the popular scene of music making, how is it possible that people at large experience so much music or melody as unique, even though most pop melodies strongly bias towards diatonic or rather limited pitch dimensions. Between all of the concepts named so far, near limitless variations are possible to create dynamic patterns. Thus, this gives the composer and musician a framework to create more unique melodies from.

From a rhythmical point of view another interesting idea comes to mind. Creating a simple 16th note hi hat pattern can be countered in various temporally shifted kick and snare patterns. For example, creating a simple 2 beat pattern, with kick on 1 and snare on 2, overlaid with the 16th notes hi hat notes. Filling in the remainder of the bar will result in a conventional drum pattern, livened by the hi hat. Altering the kick and snare by different lengths for example 3 or 5 will create a completely different drum pattern. The example of 3, means that the kick may only start after 3 beats, instead of 2 as it was before. Here is an example of the original described drum pattern, then with higher ratios:

Here are 2 different examples, the first with the kick displaced and the second with snare, with all the other elements unmoving:

As the basic concept shown here is very straight forward, what if longer and more complex patterns are created, then either the kick or snare displaced, along with other phase shifts.

Lastly, what if the hi hat pattern also becomes accented, but independently from the kick and snare pattern. Here is such an example:

As can be heard, a basic drum pattern has been transformed beyond its original fundamental time keeping function. Taken from this point of view, or the additive process, the listener can be led to believe that a very complex pattern is at work here, which it is, but conceived from easy building blocks.



The author recommends 3 things here:

  • For professional composers, producers, and musicians to explore the fascinating world of music psychology, and to follow Max Matthew's advice.

  • For these creatives to explore pattern building from various perspectives, especially when creating music in the same style for many years.

  • For listeners to explore music beyond the usual, media forced artists. Music is so vast and fascinating with so many dimensions to it. If exploring music from another culture, for example, that it may just lead to greater enthusiasm to live in general, as well as stimulate high cognitive thoughts which will lead to curiosity, and in turn lead to renewed creativity.


26 views0 comments


bottom of page