Primary versus secondary musical parameters and the classification of melodic motives

Zohar Eitan*, Roni Y. Granot

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

6 Scopus citations


Music theorists often maintain that motivic categorization in music is determined by “primary” musical parameters — music-specific aspects of pitch and temporal structure, like pitch intervals or metric hierarchies, serving as bases for musical syntax. In contrast, “secondary” parameters, including important aspects of extra-musical auditory perception like loudness, pitch register and timbre, do not establish motivic categories. We examined systematically the effects of contrasts in primary vis-à-vis secondary musical parameters on listeners’ melodic classification. Matrices of melodic patterns, each presenting 8 motives, were created by all interactions of two contrasting conditions in three musical features. In Experiment 1, four matrices manipulated pitch contour, pitch-interval class, and a compound feature involving the secondary parameters of dynamics, pitch register and articulation. In Experiment 2, four different matrices manipulated rhythmic structure (metrical and durational accent), pitch intervals, and the compound feature used in Exp1. Participants (95 participants, 27 musically trained, in Exp. 1; 88 participants, 23 musically trained, in Exp. 2) classified stimuli in each matrix into two equal-numbered (4–4) groups of motives “belonging together.” In both experiments, most participants used contrast in secondary parameters as a basis for classification, while few classifications relied on differences in pitch interval (Exp. 2) or interval class (Exp. 1). Classifications by musically trained participants also applied melodic contour and rhythm. Results suggest a hierarchy of musical parameters that challenges those suggested by most music theorists. We discuss the ramifications of the results for notions of perceived thematic-motivic structure in music, and consequentially for cognitively-informed music analysis.

Original languageAmerican English
Pages (from-to)139-179
Number of pages41
JournalMusicae Scientiae
Issue number1_suppl
StatePublished - 1 Mar 2009

Bibliographical note

Publisher Copyright:
© 2009, © 2009 European Society for the Cognitive Sciences of Music.


  • categorization
  • musical motives
  • pitch
  • rhythm
  • secondary parameters


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