Normal cognitive sciences (neurosciences and psychology) try to explain what goes on when a person

  • hearing a sequence of beats perceives a rhythm
  • hearing a sequence of tones perceives a melody
  • hearing a simultaneous set of tones perceives a chord.

From the Wikipedia article on Music Psychology (redirected from Gestalt (music)):

»At the turn of the century, music psychology moved beyond the study of isolated tones and elements to the perception of their inter-relationships.«

My question goes into the other direction:

Has it been observed or theorized about that a person might not perceive

  • a sequence of beats as a rhythm
  • a sequence of tones as a melody
  • a simultaneous set of tones as a chord?

Have some people consciously reported to have heard

  • a sequence of beats but not a rhythm
  • a sequence of tones but not a melody
  • a simultaneous set of tones but not a chord

when "normal" people (test persons) did?

Can "normal" people get an idea how it is or feels like to do so, i.e. to hear (under normal conditions)

  • a sequence of beats but not a rhythm
  • a sequence of tones but not a melody
  • a simultaneous set of tones but not a chord?

What do normal cognitive sciences say about such phenomena? What goes "wrong"?

  • 1
    Do you mean something like tone deafness or similarly "rhythm deafness" or "harmony deafness"? Something like this perhaps en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Amusia Jan 20, 2020 at 9:26
  • @piiperiReinstateMonica: I'm not an expert, but probably I mean something like that, while I would call the first not "tone" but "melody deafness": a melody deaf can perceive isolated tones but not melodies. The article on amusia is quite helpful (thanks for it) but it is not so easy to access. And it defines "melody deafness" quite differently than I do. The "inability to recognize familiar melodies" is something different than the "inability to perceive a sequence of tones as a melody". Jan 20, 2020 at 9:33
  • 1
    Sounds like aphasia to me. Cannot imagine such effects to be caused by anything other than structural damage to the brain.
    – Pyromonk
    Jan 20, 2020 at 9:43
  • Would hearing a sequence of tones as accompaniment instead of a melody count? For example, I've read descriptions saying that the 1st movement of Mozart's Symphony No. 40 in G Minor starts with accompaniment instead of melody.
    – Dekkadeci
    Jan 20, 2020 at 9:44
  • @Dekkadeci: Thanks for this interesting hint. I have to think about it. I know what you mean: I perceive an accompaniment differently than a (lead) melody. (Same goes for lounge music which is some kind of accompaniment.) Jan 20, 2020 at 9:47

4 Answers 4


Music is a language. The hearing and reading of music (including perceiving sequences of notes as "phrases"), I imagine, is no different, which is why (Broca) aphasia was the first thing to come to mind. That's my opinion which seems to be supported by modern research ("the same areas of the brain process the syntactic information for both music and language").

A search on "music and aphasia" yields quite a few results, including these:

  1. Facing the music: three issues in current research on singing and aphasia
  2. A theoretical and clinical account of music and aphasia

Yes, "aphasia" is a bit of an umbrella term. I am not a neuroscientist (and have not worked as a linguist for a long time either) and can only base my opinion on the limited knowledge I have inherited from my ex-wife who was one. I cannot imagine what you describe to be caused by anything other than damage to Broca's area.

  • You suggest there will be no symptoms of linguistic aphasia without some symptoms of musical aphasia and vice versa. It would be interesting to know if this is true. Jan 20, 2020 at 11:17
  • @Hans-PeterStricker, yes, that is indeed what I suggest. The first article links to a composer (Maurice Ravel) who suffered from Wernicke aphasia, whose biography might be worth investigating. It won't answer your question but might give you a better idea as to what's happening. Please take into account that I am not a professional in either music or neuroscience, my opinion is personal and stems from my experiences of learning languages (spoken, programming and the language of music).
    – Pyromonk
    Jan 20, 2020 at 11:26

In my own experience I have witnessed a series of tones that did not sound melodic at all. The lead break in Dr. Hooks version of "On the cover of the Rolling Stone" comes to mind. And at the risk of offending drummers everywhere, I've heard drum solos that seem to throw the concept of rhythm into the trash bin. Also, I'm not aware of a chord name for a tonic, minor second, major second, set of tones when played at the same time. This leads me to believe that these situations exist, but that we don't tend to apply the musical definition to them, choosing instead to just call them noise.


Let's consider all three one by one.

Sequence of tones: have you learned yet about twelve-tone music? Create a twelve-tone row by using each of the twelve chromatic notes within the octave exactly once, with the order arranged such that the sequence does not strike the ear as sounding "tonal." That is, choose the order such that the result doesn't sound like it's in one key or another, and doesn't have a cadence. Once the composer has constructed a twelve-tone row in this way, that s/he finds interesting to listen to and work with, the next step is to make interesting music with it!

Rhythm: I haven't heard of this before, but I suppose it might be fun to try to create a sequence of note values such that no regular rhythm pattern, or groove, has been conveyed to the listener, in an analogous way to what I just described with the twelve-tone row.

Chord: Normally a chord is constructed by playing a triad with all notes in the triad sounding simultaneously. (A triad is also called a "broken chord" -- it's every other note, ascending the scale.) The simplest chord contains the first, third and fifth notes (or degrees) in the chosen scale (or mode, more generally). It's a straightforward next step to add the seventh. But in more recent history people have added other degrees, e.g. "added eleventh." But note that you can optionally take that eleventh down an octave, if you want to. Now you have a fat cluster of notes in your chord: third degree of the scale, fourth, fifth -- all sounding simultaneously.

But you can also have some fun juxtaposing two different chords together, at the same time. Now you have some mud -- fun! Effective in certain circumstances! There are some lovely piano études by Waxman that can give the beginning to intermediate piano student some exposure to some of these more modern concepts.

I suggest you make some progress with playing and listening to "twentieth century music," and read some music theory books, to acquaint yourself with music that doesn't follow whatever stylistic paradigms you've been apparently limited to up until now (Mozartian maybe?) Expand your horizons -- and then come back after a year and reread your post.

  • I've listened to twelve-tone music. They were atonal and unpleasant to listen to, but I assure you they had melodies. It's also a bit debatable, but it's easier to perceive a tone cluster as a chord on visible sheet music (especially ones that span a sixth or more). Also be careful with the rhythm example: there are ways to construct quasicrystal rhythms that never repeat beyond a certain scale but that sound convincing enough.
    – Dekkadeci
    Jan 21, 2020 at 12:24

A series of pitches that doesn’t create a feeling of melody is called a tone row. A rhythm that doesn’t give a pulse is called pointillistic or punctual rhythm.

  • But a tone row can be a melody, can't it?
    – Dekkadeci
    Jan 22, 2020 at 1:14
  • Thanks, but this is not an answer to my question: I asked for the inability of perceiving a "normal" melody that is normally perceived as such (by normal listeners under normal conditions). Jan 22, 2020 at 9:23

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