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Hardcover | Out of Print | ISBN: 9780262201346 | 422 pp. | 7 x 9 in | 211 illus. | November 2001
Paperback | $34.00 Short | £24.95 | ISBN: 9780262701051 | 422 pp. | 7 x 9 in | 211 illus. | August 2004

The Cognition of Basic Musical Structures


In this book, David Temperley addresses a fundamental question about music cognition: how do we extract basic kinds of musical information, such as meter, phrase structure, counterpoint, pitch spelling, harmony, and key from music as we hear it? Taking a computational approach, Temperley develops models for generating these aspects of musical structure. The models he proposes are based on preference rules, which are criteria for evaluating a possible structural analysis of a piece of music. A preference rule system evaluates many possible interpretations and chooses the one that best satisfies the rules.

After an introductory chapter, Temperley presents preference rule systems for generating six basic kinds of musical structure: meter, phrase structure, contrapuntal structure, harmony, and key, as well as pitch spelling (the labeling of pitch events with spellings such as A flat or G sharp). He suggests that preference rule systems not only show how musical structures are inferred, but also shed light on other aspects of music. He substantiates this claim with discussions of musical ambiguity, retrospective revision, expectation, and music outside the Western canon (rock and traditional African music). He proposes a framework for the description of musical styles based on preference rule systems and explores the relevance of preference rule systems to higher-level aspects of music, such as musical schemata, narrative and drama, and musical tension.

About the Author

David Temperley is Associate Professor of Music Theory at the Eastman School of Music, University of Rochester, and the author of The Cognition of Basic Musical Structures (MIT Press, 2001).


“Temperley's book is an interesting computational application of forward-looking ideas current in music cognition with regards to conventional, tonal music. Offering a diverse, wide-reaching discussion of 'common practice' music, it gives a strong nod towards the formality induced by necessity from computational models, and is very welcome in so doing.”
Larry Polansky, Joseph Straus 1922 Professor of Music, Dartmouth College, co-author of the computer music language HMSL and co-director, Frog Peak Music
“This book makes substantial progress in the computer modeling of basic aspects of musical cognition. The author's presentation of complex subject matter is as direct and straightforward as one could wish. His writing is natural, clear, and unfailingly logical.”
Fred Lerdahl, Fritz Reiner Professor of Music, Columbia University
“This book definitively transforms music theory from a discipline yielding interesting and sophisticated, but mostly abstract, theories of music into a science that develops precise and testable models of music perception, thus providing genuine insights into the structures and mechanisms involved in the processing of music. In addition to its own substantial contribution to the field, this work sets the stage for future developments in both music theory and music psychology.”
Dirk-Jan Povel, Nijmegen Institute for Cognition and Information (NICI)
“Temperley's book is a landmark effort that integrates three strands of contemporary music theory: preference rule formalisms, music cognition, and computational modeling. Temperley wisely encourages music scholars to reconsider basic topics such as key, meter, and harmony. In addressing anew these concepts the books lays the most solid foundations yet described for the analysis of music. At the same time, the book provides lucid insights into such phenomena as rock music and African rhythms. A major contribution to music theory.”
David Huron, Professor of Music, Ohio State University, and author of Sweet Anticipation: Music and the Psychology of Expectation