I have been perusing Ray Jackendoff and Fred Lerdahl's book A Generative Theory of Tonal Music. In this book, they propose some rules for meter and one of their assumptions is basically that musical meter is perceived using a grid of dots.

enter image description here

These seem like very strong axioms to assume. It is one thing to say that music tends to have a pulse or tactus. But to assume a hierarchy, I would expect some strong evidence and I wasn't impressed with the evidence they provided.

Is there any psychological or neuroscience evidence that humans perceive meter using a metrical grid/hierachy?

Is there a commonly accepted reason why we would think that humans perceive meter in a metrical grid / hierarchy?

  • I'm not sure, whether hierarchy is the same like the distinction of strong and weak beats; but I would have assumed, that a single comparison of a sloppily (in regard to note length values) played piece with a more exact approach would have given plenty of evidence. Why don't you think so?
    – guidot
    Dec 24, 2020 at 11:39
  • 2
    Given their title, I don't think they are making claims about all music but only about Western common practice music. Dec 25, 2020 at 1:59
  • Is the assumption really that meter is intrinsically perceived this way? As far as I am aware this hierarchy is part of the definition of the metrical system, just as pitches and consonance and dissonance are part of the definition of the pitch system.
    – phoog
    Dec 29, 2020 at 10:24

1 Answer 1


Do the authors actual say something meaning "perceive with/as a grid?" People perceive with their senses, they represent meter as a grid.

It's like plotting a line on a grid in math: it just represents basic information. Time is one line of the grid and some form of accent is the other line.

I think part of the problem is the concern about evidence. The point they make about hierarchy is based not on psychology. It's a logical point. The example given just before fig. 2.6 is this...

. . . . . . . 

...which is meant to represent a steady, unchanging series of pulses. There is nothing in terms of accent to determine a pattern. You could say one . is repeating, or two . . is repeating, or three . . . , etc. etc.

You need at least one contrasting accent to determine a clear pattern. How the accent is achieved is a tricky business, but it isn't the point of that part of the text. The accent could be a volume accent, a chord change, a long note, etc. etc. It just needs to be some perceptible contrast. However the accent is achieve they represent it with stacked up dots...

. . . . . . . .
.   .   .   .
.       .

The point is logical versus psychological.

If there is not a difference in accent - a hierarchy where some beats are different that other beats - a pattern not only isn't perceptible, it logically wouldn't exist.

Or maybe you could say a pattern of one is the un-meter.

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.