What constitutes a phrase in sound-based music? A mixed-methods investigation of perception and acoustics

Kirk N. Olsen, Roger T. Dean, Yvonne Leung

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    11 Citations (Scopus)
    35 Downloads (Pure)


    Phrasing facilitates the organization of auditory information and is central to speech and music. Not surprisingly, aspects of changing intensity, rhythm, and pitch are key determinants of musical phrases and their boundaries in instrumental note-based music. Different kinds of speech (such as tone- vs. stress-languages) share these features in different proportions and form an instructive comparison. However, little is known about whether or how musical phrasing is perceived in sound-based music, where the basic musical unit from which a piece is created is commonly non-instrumental continuous sounds, rather than instrumental discontinuous notes. This issue forms the target of the present paper. Twenty participants (17 untrained in music) were presented with six stimuli derived from soundbased music, note-based music, and environmental sound. Their task was to indicate each occurrence of a perceived phrase and qualitatively describe key characteristics of the stimulus associated with each phrase response. It was hypothesized that sound-based music does elicit phrase perception, and that this is primarily associated with temporal changes in intensity and timbre, rather than rhythm and pitch. Results supported this hypothesis. Qualitative analysis of participant descriptions showed that for sound-based music, the majority of perceived phrases were associated with intensity or timbral change. For the note-based piano piece, rhythm was the main theme associated with perceived musical phrasing. We modeled the occurrence in time of perceived musical phrases with recurrent event 'hazard' analyses using time-series data representing acoustic predictors associated with intensity, spectral flatness, and rhythmic density. Acoustic intensity and timbre (represented here by spectral flatness) were strong predictors of perceived musical phrasing in sound-based music, and rhythm was only predictive for the piano piece. A further analysis including five additional spectral measures linked to timbre strengthened the models. Overall, results show that even when little of the pitch and rhythm information important for phrasing in notebased music is available, phrasing is still perceived, primarily in response to changes of intensity and timbre. Implications for electroacoustic music composition and music recommender systems are discussed.

    Original languageEnglish
    Article number0167643
    Pages (from-to)1-29
    Number of pages29
    JournalPLoS ONE
    Issue number12
    Publication statusPublished - 20 Dec 2016

    Bibliographical note

    Copyright the Author(s) 2016. Version archived for private and non-commercial use with the permission of the author/s and according to publisher conditions. For further rights please contact the publisher.


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