Contact Information
last updated: 10/22/2010

Foreword : Cornelia Fales

     In 1974, Charles Watson published a history of psychoacoustics in which he proposed a distinction between the concepts of human hearing capabilities and proclivities. Capabilities lie at the extremes of human auditory behavior, and are measured in limiting quantities such as "just noticeable difference" or "thresholds". Proclivities describe the statistical probability of a certain response to a set of stimuli. Capabilities, that is, describe what listeners can do; proclivities describe what listeners do do. The distinction is now commonly accepted, but for a long time, research in auditory perception has clung to the study of capabilities: how soft a tone can a listener hear in the presence of masking noise? what is the minimum duration of a tone with discernible pitch? The preeminence of capabilities over proclivities evolved naturally in the history of perception research for three reasons. First, experimental psychology traditionally modeled itself after the physical sciences, in which precision of domain and method are primary. Such precision was thought to be possible only at the extremes of behavior where universals of human hearing were assumed to occur, or at least where variability and idiosyncratic factors were less likely to interfere. Second, authentic proclivities in hearing are difficult to elicit in a laboratory, and equally difficult to define and describe statistically. And third, however limited the implications of auditory capabilities, there is methodological efficiency in establishing some fixed values before investigating more flexible variations.

     Only recently has auditory science begun to consider the importance of proclivities‹not because researchers now have the tools and methodology to study them, but because it can no longer be ignored that even capabilities may be influenced by factors previously assigned to proclivities. Like the humanists before them, experimental psychologists are beginning to suspect that there are indeed very few universals even at the extremes of auditory capability. At the present time, an important task in auditory research is to discover how to study capabilities while maintaining the precision that defines experimental protocol. One of the first steps scientists might take is to talk to researchers whose specialty is hearing proclivities.

     As ethnomusicologists, we are among the few who routinely and systematically observe auditory behavior at its most creative‹in the realm of music. Few other music disciplines‹even those whose concern centers on auditory perception‹emphasize the performance context or focus on listeners at the very time when their listening is at its most skillful and most demonstrative of proclivities, during a music performance. But if auditory scientists need ethnomusicologists, so also might ethnomusicologists benefit from the insights into human listening offered by the broader field of auditory cognition. Part of the turn from capabilities to proclivities in hearing science is the acknowledgment that auditory perception is flexible, that acoustic reality and perceptual reality are not the same. Research has shown that an understanding of the acoustic signal confronting a listener is not sufficient to understand the percepts provoked by the signal. It is not the case that the same acoustic stimulus will excite the same perception in all listeners, or even that a given listener will always perceive a given stimulus in the same way. While many of the variations in perception remain mysterious, it is well-established that cultural factors‹the language a listener speaks, the modal system a listener has grown up with, the genres a listener is accustomed to‹can influence auditory perception profoundly.

     The current state of knowledge in this regard contributes a different perspective on the question of research objectivity in ethnomusicology: except in cases where researchers are indigenous to the music they are investigating, the assumption that they are experiencing the same sensory percepts as the music's customary listeners might be considered a form of "audiocentrism"; as listeners external to a musical culture, researchers can no longer be sure that they are even hearing the same sounds as indigenous listeners. It becomes critical, then, to develop a research methodology in ethnomusicology that will accomplish the tricky business of verifying what it is that listeners are actually hearing. This, it seems, ought to be one of the basic tasks of field work, no less important than the recording and transcription.

     If it is true that auditory perception is variable, unpredictable from an examination of the acoustic signal alone, what is the purpose of acoustic analysis of music such as presented in the papers in this collection? While perception can not be understood from the signal alone, neither can it be understood without some concept of the acoustic properties that provoke it. Though flexible, auditory perception in a nondelusional listener will not occur divorced from an acoustic signal. Clearly there is some consistency in perception, else it would be difficult for multiple perceivers to live and communicate in groups. Perceptual flexibility occurs in the interpretation of the signal, and while much of the interpretative apparatus may originate in the auditory orientation of the listener, it is the signal itself that initiates and directs the interpretation. Thus, to understand what listeners at a music performance are experiencing through their ears, it is important to examine the acoustic signal‹as well as other factors‹that evoke that experience.

     The papers in this collection have one of two objectives: either they investigate the relationship between music as an acoustic signal and listeners' reported perception of that music, or they address a research problem in understanding the kind of music under investigation. But the papers were chosen for another reason as well: in addition to accomplishing one of these objectives, each paper also demonstrates the links possible between the micro-level facts discovered via acoustic analysis and the macro-level issues that are more often familiar to ethnomusicologists. Megan Weeder's paper, for example, examines the nature of iconicity in sound symbolism by comparing the acoustic structure of a violin and the drum it imitates. Ilze Akerbergs finds evidence of "recreated tradition" in her discovery that the beating between the drone chorus and soloist in Latvian singing is so necessary a part of the drone tradition, that it has been artificially added to an electronically mediated version in which the reverb effect has disrupted the natural beating of voices. Cathy Brigham considers musicians together with their instruments as "sound systems" with human and mechanical roles overlapping, and she invents an ingenious method of distinguishing parts of that system.

     Hilary Finchum investigates a single acoustic element as it operates in isolation from its context, reversing the gestalt phenomenon of musical timbre; at the same time, she challenges the traditional use of a speech model in understanding this musical form. And Heather Adou explores the tuning and timbre of a West African xylophone and the interrelation of pitch and timbre‹two domains traditionally considered in isolation from each other‹while deciphering the contradiction between a system designated "pentatonic" by researchers, but heard indigenously as having more than five separate pitches. Harry Berger and Cornelia Fales devise a time-sensitive technique for correlating listener descriptions of changes in heavy metal music from 1970 to the present with elements of the music's acoustic structure that change correspondingly. Alex Perullo and Joan Zaretti consider the problem of notating timbre and other musical phenomena that have no convention of symbols in the Western notation system.

Though each of these papers begins by analyzing some aspect of the acoustic structure of a particular music, the result of the analysis in each case bears directly on perception. For it is perception finally that is of interest here; in principle, it is perception‹of musicians and their listeners‹that assembles acoustic structures as they exist formally in music. In the end, the relationship between a music's acoustic structure and the perception it inspires is circular‹the acoustics inspiring perception on the part of listeners, and listeners choosing the acoustics that will inspire the percept they wish to experience.

      If it is the case, as claimed by some researchers, that human auditory equipment developed pragmatically like other organic systems, then somewhere in in the "evolutionary plan", the capacity to produce and perceive musical sound must have been considered necessary for the continuation of the species. For, if capabilities‹the perceivable range of sound elements, for example‹are determined by necessity, the grouping of acoustic elements into interpretable perception is only partly so. The process that translates a collection of frequencies into the percept of specific instruments playing specific pitches with characteristic timbres, as structured by often subtle and complex generic rules‹this process is so flexible that it seems no evolutionary function can be served, except the creative act of listening musically. The projects reported in these papers begin with the premise that valid insight into auditory creativity ought to combine field and laboratory research, to consider both the perception of music as reported by listeners and the acoustics of music as uncovered through digital analysis of sound samples.

* * * * *

    Readers new to sound analysis, acoustics, or auditory perception will find a glossary and a short article on aspects of acoustics that are relevant to the articles and to deciphering visual representations of sound. Samples of all sounds discussed in these papers are available for listening on SAVAIL's Web Page:; since the process of writing about music is no less problematic now than when Charles Seeger first raised the issue, the authors of all these articles urge readers to refer to the Web page to hear the music described, both in its original form and as filtered for analysis. Finally, all authors included here would be grateful to receive comments on their projects, on sound analysis in general, or on the relevance of their work to other research. Comments mailed to will be forwarded to the appropriate author.

Cornelia Fales


Bregman, A. (1990). Auditory Scene Analysis. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
McAdams, S. (1982). Spectral fusion and the creation of auditory images. In M. Clynes (ed.), Music, Mind and Brain. New York: Plenum.
Watson, C. (1974). Psychophysics. In B.B. Wolman, ed., Handbook of General Psychology. New York: Prentice-Hall.

last updated: 10/22/2010