A parametric, temporal model of musical tension

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Tension in music is a high-level concept that is difficult to formalize due to its complex, multidimensional nature. This paper proposes a quantitative model of musical tension that takes into account the dynamic, temporal aspects of listening. The model is based on data from two experiments. The first was a web-based study that was designed to examine how individual musical parameters contribute directly to a listener's overall perception of tension and how those parameters interact. The second study was an in-lab experiment in which listeners were asked to provide continuous responses to longer, more complex musical stimuli. Both studies took into account a number of musical parameters including harmony, pitch height, melodic expectation, dynamics, onset frequency, tempo, meter, rhythmic regularity, and syncopation. As an initial step, linear and nonlinear models were explored for predicting tension given analytical descriptions of various musical parameters. These models were tested on the continuous-response data from Experiment 2 and shown to be insufficient. An alternate model was proposed based on the notion of a moving perceptual window in time and the concept of trend salience. High correlation with empirical data indicates that this parametric, temporal model accurately predicts tension judgments for complex musical stimuli.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)387-428
Number of pages42
JournalMusic Perception
Issue number4
StatePublished - Apr 2012


  • Change perception
  • Musical tension
  • Temporal dynamics
  • Trend salience
  • Web study

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Music


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