Music and Time

Music and time…. Lauren’s reading group report

The third official meeting of EMPRes looked at the complex and controversial field of Music and Time. Ziv and Omer (2010) was used as a starting point of discussion, with Grondin (2010) providing a more general review of time perception.

In order to engage with the Ziv and Omer paper, we first listened to the two musical stimuli: Bach’s C sharp major fugue, and Schoenberg’s Musette. This was followed by a summary of the paradigms used to test time perception and an examination of the hypotheses put forth in the paper. Given the disparate findings in the literature, the reasoning behind the hypotheses were explored. The difference in the direction of time estimation hypotheses between prospective and retrospective paradigms was a primary focus, as was the issue of pleasantness. The hypotheses were understood to rely on two lines of reasoning:

  • Stimulus complexity modulates attention. Prospectively, this means that greater complexity results in less attention to time, and hence shorter time estimation. Retrospectively, this means that greater complexity results in more information being stored in memory, and hence longer estimations of time.
  • This leads to the question of whether atonal or tonal music is more complex. It was concluded that tonal music can be argued to be, since we can understand it hierarchically as opposed to hearing it as chaotic.
  • More attention is allocated to time than to pleasantness in the prospective paradigm. Therefore ratings of pleasantness will be higher when time is not an initial focus – i.e. in the retrospective paradigm.

Given the specificity of the hypotheses in the face of such controversial previous findings it was queried as to whether the hypotheses were made after the results. However, the support found for particular models of time perception was strong, and the study well received, once initial confusion was passed. However, several issues were raised with respect to the stimuli employed and the training of the participants. These are summarised below.


When considering the music itself, several issues were raised. To start with, the two contrasting pieces were matched purely on instrumentation and real time. No discussion of repetition was included, which was clearly a primary element of the fugue, despite the fact that it facilitates both music and language perception. Additionally there was no discussion of expectation.

Other primary musical parameters that were unaccounted for but were suggested to be important for time perception were:

  • Tempo
  • Intensity
  • Structure

Participants, as is common, were psychology students. There was no pre-test control for musical experience, with most participants being stated to fall into the very broad ‘none to moderate’ musical experience category. It was queried whether this breadth of musical training could have negatively impacted the examination of participants’ sense of key. Those with no musical training may have been considering a different parameter, if they had not previously been taught the basics of musical harmony.

General Points

We then discussed the issue of music and time more generally, considering whether the music directly impacts time perception or is mediated by other factors. The attempt to differentiate the effect of affect in music was appreciated, but given the variation in the field, this was considered to add further complexity to an already complex design. The crossing of both tonality and paradigm without control for other factors such as tempo runs the risk of differences between musical stimuli being put down to tonality when in fact another musical parameter is the effector.

Music proceeds through time, and is therefore a perfect medium through which to study time perception. However, the explicit use of time, through parameters such as rhythm or tempo, makes it particularly complex to study, with variable and at times contradictory findings in musical time perception possibly relating to such manipulations. An interesting implication of this study is that prospective and retrospective judgements are affected differently by particular stimulus parameters, with a valuable potential development involving the composition of one musical piece which could be presented in either a major or minor key, allowing conditions to differ solely through tonality.

About Nikki

Nikki is Senior Lecturer in Music at Edinburgh University.
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