It’s only rock ‘n roll (but I like it): Chord perception and rock’s liberal harmonic palette

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© The Author(s) 2019. Both music-theoretic accounts and corpus analyses indicate that rock routinely employs chords that deviate from the norms of common-practice music. Yet we know little about how listeners experience the chords that make up rock’s liberal harmonic palette. In the present study, participants in two online experiments rated major chords that followed a short tonal sequence (a major scale + tonic major triad). Liking ratings obtained in Experiment 1 replicated earlier work showing that listeners prefer rock-typical targets—chords that are common in rock, but lie outside the basic diatonic set—to atypical, rarely used targets (Craton, Juergens, Michalak, & Poirier, 2016). Goodness of fit ratings with the same stimuli in Experiment 2 were similar to the liking ratings. High ratings for rock-typical target chords across the two experiments were not an artifact of their register and the pattern of responses was similar across four levels level of music training. In addition, the mean fitness ratings were approximated by simulations conducted with an auditory short-term memory (ASTM) model (Leman, 2000). Considered together, the findings provide evidence that listeners perceive rock-typical chords to be normal components of a key and that they may do so based on information in the auditory signal alone, without recourse to statistical learning mechanisms or representations of tonal knowledge. We speculate that bottom-up processes operating directly on the auditory signal create a perceptual ranking of chord fitness, which provides the harmonic palette from which composers/improvisers in different musical systems may conservatively (common-practice) or liberally (rock) choose. The mean data are available in tabular form for modelers in the online supplemental material.

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