Generative Theory and Gestalt Psychology

Fred Lerdahl and Ray Jackendoff’s A Generative Theory of Tonal Music (GTTM), written in 1983, is a seminal work of the music cognition literature and has been expanded upon by many more recent works. I recently finished reading the work cover-to-cover, which was difficult to process but overall a rewarding process, most of all in the way it made me reevaluate the way I approach and understand music analysis. I plan to return to the actual analysis in a later post, but here, I will address Chapter 12, which covers the relationship of GTTM to psychology and linguistics.

In a few words, Gestalt psychology posits very theories as to how we organize the chaotic bombardment of stimuli around us. In the visual domain, it seeks to explain how one can distinguish objects from their backgrounds, how we determine depth, and how we perceive interrupted continuity, among other things. Notably, the rules which govern this perception are not absolutes, but rather a series of preferences, which may override one another. When competing preferences cannot be resolved, we experience the optical illusions of well-known “impossible” 3-D figures.

These preference rules, Jackendoff and Lerdahl posit, bear striking similarity to several of the preference rules which they have outlined. In particular, several of their preference rules involve distinguishing a musical object from is surrounding material through parallelism, symmetry, and group boundary definition. These preference rules can override one another at various levels, as seen in the dominance of parallelism in the judgement of the main theme in Mozart’s G Minor Symphony, which is one of a few pieces that GTTM focuses on for its analysis.

As apt as their comparisons may at first seem, they temper their theories with acknowledgement of music’s extreme ambiguity. These preference rules often will not yield absolute interpretations, but rather myriad possible interpretations. When I began reading GTTM, I worried that it would suck the joy from listening to music in the same way a bad teacher can, by demanding only a single correct interpretation for a given work. GTTM reveals the complex mechanisms at work in listening and composition, and encourages explorative listening. Much like multistable constructions such as the Necker cube or the Rubin vase, a Mozart symphony can be examined from slightly different angles to reveal a new work, parallel yet distinct from the performance heard by your fellow audience members.

This is what I value in music theory. Rather than seeking absolutes, let’s explore the vast possibilities which each work offers.