Asymmetry in scales enhances learning of new musical structures

Claire Pelofi, Morwaread M. Farbood

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Despite the remarkable variability music displays across cultures, certain recurrent musical features motivate the hypothesis that fundamental cognitive principles constrain the way music is produced. One such feature concerns the structure of musical scales. The vast majority of musical cultures use scales that are not uniformly symmetric-that is, scales that contain notes spread unevenly across the octave. Here we present evidence that the structure of musical scales has a substantial impact on how listeners learn new musical systems. Three experiments were conducted to test the hypothesis that nonuniformity facilitates the processing of melodies. Novel melodic stimuli were composed based on artificial grammars using scales with different levels of symmetry. Experiment 1 tested the acquisition of tonal hierarchies and melodic regularities on three different 12-tone equal-tempered scales using a finite-state grammar. Experiments 2 and 3 used more flexible Markov-chain grammars and were designed to generalize the effect to 14-tone and 16-tone equal-tempered scales. The results showed that performance was significantly enhanced by scale structures that specified the tonal space by providing unique intervallic relations between notes. These results suggest that the learning of novel musical systems is modulated by the symmetry of scales, which in turn may explain the prevalence of nonuniform scales across musical cultures.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article numbere2014725118
JournalProceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America
Issue number31
StatePublished - Aug 3 2021


  • Expectancies
  • Musical cultures
  • Musical scale
  • Syntactic learning
  • Universals

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General


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