Perceiving Musical Information

Music is often described as a language. Music isn’t a literal “language,” but it contains information, even if it isn’t information we can express in words. Lyrics and descriptions don’t count because they’re words, not music. However, music does contain information about pulses and timing, and distances between groups of notes. The fact that two people recalling the same song can hum the same tune proves that music really does contain “information.” (However, they probably won’t hum it from memory in the same key.)

Let’s look at how we perceive and recognize melody. The first thing to understand is that melodies aren’t tied to the individual notes which make up the melody. Melodies are tied to patterns of distances between notes. Here’s an example. Below is a list of the first twelve notes of The Star Spangled Banner, in order, played in the key of C:

G – E – C – E – G – C – E – D – C – E – F# – G

Here are the first twelve notes of The Star Spangled Banner, this time played in the key of Db:

Ab – F – Db – F – Ab – Db – F – Eb – Db – F – G – Ab

You can see these two examples don’t contain any of the same notes, except for one. The G note which occurs in both examples doesn’t occur in the same place in the melody. The reason these two sets of notes create the same melody is because the pattern of distances between the notes is the same in both examples. There are ten other possible note combinations for this melody, each starting with a different note. (This is an example of how you transpose a melody from one key to another.)

This is to illustrate that the information we perceive in musical notes isn’t tied to the notes themselves. The information in music isn’t like the information expressed in words. We perceive information in music based on the distances between notes. Distances between notes” is one of the most important concepts in music. This concept will also play a part in ear-training, theory, technique, and reading music.

We as humans recognize melodies spelled out in distances between notes. We don’t have a very good memory for particular pitches, and our memory of music usually isn’t tied to particular pitches. Instead, our memory is tied to the distance relationships between the notes.

If you can follow a modulating melody, and identify the same melody in different keys, then that proves you comprehend the concept of distances between notes, at least at an intuitive level. As listeners, we have an innate understanding of the sounds
of several important musical models, all based on the distances between notes. Anyone who listens to Western music knows the sounds of the standard 12-note chromatic scale, and the 7-note major scale.

People all over the world have an intuitive understanding of musical principles related to octaves, which is remarkable if you think about it. We aren’t born with any innate or a priori knowledge of music. We learn it from the culture we’re raised in, usually at the same time we’re learning language. Singing comes naturally to people of all cultures. By experimenting, people can learn to “sing” melodies through the keys or strings of an instrument.

© 2019, 2020 by Gregory Varhaug