Dynamic peaks and the perception of large-scale musical form

Geoffrey McDonald M. A. (Hochschule für Musik Freiburg)

This presentation discusses the theoretical backdrop and results from empirical studies testing assumptions about musical dynamics and expectation in the perception of global form. In music theory, there is an assumed relationship between pitch height and volume, such that higher pitch will correlate with louder dynamics. While there is a cognitive-perceptual basis for this assumption on a local level, it has not been tested empirically with large-scale structures. A similarly intuitive – and equally untested – assumption has to do with musical climaxes, which are often described by theorists as the culmination of a tension profile covering the duration of a whole section, movement, or work. These tension profiles have been described using terms like “dynamic curve”, “narrative arc”, and other related schematic metaphors. We tested these theoretical premises using a novel paradigm whereby listeners assigned dynamics to Chopin piano preludes in which the volume level had been equalized. For pieces with a single highest pitch, participants consistently assigned the dynamic peak to the melodic highpoint. Two of our stimuli (the original version of the Prelude in C Minor as well as the same piece played in reverse) did not have a single melodic highpoint. Here, following our hypothesis of secondary schematic expectation, listeners tended to assign dynamic highpoints to the second half of the piece, in keeping with the idea of “dynamic curve” that culminates at or after the temporal midpoint of the piece.

The second experiment, currently in planning, will take place at a live performance of Chopin piano works, where we will collect continuous response data from listeners in the audience. Participants will provide a combination of tension curves and identified musical climaxes in real time, potentially deepening insights into the relationship between schematic expectation, perceived musical tension, and performed dynamics in the perception of musical form.


Geoffrey McDonald is a doctoral candidate in systematic musicology at the Hochschule für Musik Freiburg. He earned his bachelors in musicology from Princeton University and his masters in orchestral conducting from Mannes Conservatory, The New School. In addition to his academic research, McDonald is an active freelance orchestra and opera conductor, appearing regularly with ensembles throughout the United States. He is also the music director of New York City's On Site Opera, a position which he has held since 2015.