Building an Authentic Listener: applying a passive exposure-based learning paradigm to detecting differences among compositional styles

Frauke Jurgensen, David G Pearson, Ian Knopke

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Background in music history. Around 1600, there was a shift in compositional style whose most significant feature was the increasingly free use of unprepared and/or incorrectly resolved dissonance. It caused controversy at the time (Artusi vs. Monteverdi), and its proponents argued that it was justifiable as a means of text expression. It can be argued that, in order to be shocked at the "illegal" treatment of dissonances, a listener would have to be familiar with "legal" behaviour of dissonances. Modern audiences, when exposed to seconda pratica music, tend not to react with same degree of alarm. One can argue that this is because later developments in music, to which the audiences have been exposed, go much farther in their dissonance treatment than the music of the seconda pratica composers.
Background in psychology. Previous studies have shown that participants can rapidly develop both knowledge and subjective preference for grammatical structure following only a limited exposure to unfamiliar musical systems. Familiarity with musical structure has been shown to play a role in influencing the degree of emotional engagement experienced by participants
while listening to music. The differences among the musical stimuli used in these studies are often maximised; in some cases, an entirely artificial musical grammar is used.
Aims. Can we, through exposure to a training set, build enough familiarity in modern listeners of the conventional rules of dissonance treatment, that they experience seconda pratica music as odd or alarming in some way? Our experiment is a pilot study to test the feasibility of such an approach to this problem.
Main contribution. We constructed an experiment in which a group of participants, drawn from among undergraduate students in music and psychology, were asked to rate two different pieces of Monteverdi (to represent seconda pratica), both before and after being exposed to a training set composed of either Monteverdi or Palestrina (to represent prima pratica). All
pieces were presented once only without repetition. The training sets were chosen to minimise the effect of performers' interpretation on the listener, in an attempt to isolate compositional style as the most salient difference. Our results showed a significant difference in the rating of the Monteverdi pieces as "familiar" between the different groups. Other variables did not have a significant impact. This finding implies a degree of internalisation of the differences in musical grammar, and suggests that this paradigm for study might profitably be extended in the future.
Implications. Our research has implications for any situation in which a teacher, performer, or composer is attempting to communicate musical meaning to an audience that is unfamiliar with the style in question. If a fairly brief training period is sufficient to build an appreciation in a sample of untrained listeners, for differences that are as relatively subtle as those between Monteverdi and Palestrina, then a presenter of unfamiliar or new music might use such knowledge to consciously structure the listening experience.
Original languageEnglish
Article number16081205
Pages (from-to)141-155
Number of pages15
JournalJournal of Interdisciplinary Music Studies
Issue number2014-2016
Publication statusPublished - 15 Mar 2017

Bibliographical note

We would like to thank postgraduate research assistant Stephanie Colley for encoding the musical data into kern format, Prof. David Smith for his feedback on earlier drafts, and JISC for supporting this project as part of the "Digging into Data" programme (project title "ELVIS").


  • familiarity
  • compositional style
  • performance


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