Dissertation Index

Author: Hughes, Bryn

Title: Harmonic Expectation in Twelve-Bar Blues Progressions

Institution: Florida State University

Begun: August 2005

Completed: August 2011


Music theorists often suggest that harmony in common-practice music is governed by syntax. Cognitive studies have shown that listeners expect chord successions that adhere to syntactical rules pertaining to chord-to-chord connections, metrical placement, and formal organization. There is less agreement among music theorists regarding rules of harmonic syntax in rock music. Some suggest that the syntax is the same for both contexts, while others propose new syntactical rules for rock music. Through three empirical studies, this dissertation addresses listener perception of harmony in rock music and examines the degree to which experimental results support the competing theories of rock harmony. For the purposes of these experiments, the twelve-bar blues scheme — a model that has greatly influenced rock music — serves as a framework for harmonic practice in the rock idiom.

The experiments presented in this dissertation define harmonic syntax in terms of expectation. Although all three experiments engage different facets of expectation, they all share certain design features. Foremost is the rating scale response mode, which allows for global judgments of stimuli and addresses expectation by way of misattribution: a positive rating is understood as reflecting a predicted event. Second, because these experiments intend to investigate possible differences in the expectations produced by rock and common-practice music, the stimuli used in each experiment include several features that firmly establish stylistic context. Together, the three studies aim to contribute insight to the growing body of research that addresses the following four broad questions: 1) Does rock music elicit expectations that are different from those held for common practice music? 2) Do listeners have graded expectations of harmony in rock music? 3) What is the relationship between expectations of temporality and harmony in a rock music context? 4) Does harmony affect expectations of musical form (or vice versa)?

The results of all three experiments provide evidence that trained musicians possess specific graded expectations of harmony when engaged with musical stimuli representative of the rock genre. Although many of these expectations align with those already known for common-practice harmony, each experiment revealed subtle but significant discrepancies between expectations for these two genres of music. Experiment 1 showed that listeners are less accepting of out-of-key successions when they are primed by classical style cues than when they are primed by blues/rock cues. When primed by blues/rock cues, listeners rated primary triads equally when initiating or terminating a succession; however, in identical situations primed with classical cues, listeners showed a preference for tonic and dominant over subdominant harmony. Experiments 2 and 3 showed that listeners have strong and specific expectations of musical phrases within the context of twelve-bar blues schemata. Participants displayed sensitivity to the normative harmonic rhythm and timing in the twelve-bar blues phrase structure (Experiment 2) and largely depended on the normative events of these schemata to orient their listening within the overall twelve-bar form (Experiment 3). Experiment 3 also provided evidence that listeners prefer (presumably because they have stronger expectations for) a four-measure phrase when that phrase conveys a clear orientation within the larger twelve-bar form.

Keywords: music theory, music cognition, harmony, expectation, blues, rock, popular music
schema, statistical learning



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