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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.

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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?

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  • 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

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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.

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