Award Date


Degree Type


Degree Name

Master of Arts in Psychology



First Committee Member

Erin Hannon, Chair

Second Committee Member

Joel Snyder

Third Committee Member

Mark Ashcraft

Graduate Faculty Representative

Gabrielle Wulf

Number of Pages



Experienced listeners possess a working knowledge of pitch structure in Western music, such as scale, key, harmony, and tonality, which develops gradually throughout childhood. It is commonly assumed that tonal representations are acquired through exposure to the statistics of music, but few studies have investigated potential learning mechanisms directly. In Western tonal music, tonally stable pitches not only have a higher overall frequency of occurrence, but they may occur more frequently at strong than weak metrical positions, providing two potential avenues for tonal learning. Two experiments employed an artificial grammar learning paradigm to examine tonal learning mechanisms. During a familiarization phase, we exposed nonmusician adult listeners to a long (whole tone scale) sequence with certain distributional properties. In a subsequent test phase we examined listeners' learning using grammaticality or probe tone judgments. In the grammaticality task, participants indicated which of two short test sequences conformed to the familiarization sequence. In the probe tone task, participants provided fit ratings for individual probe tones following short "reminder" sequences. Experiment 1 examined learning from overall frequency of occurrence. Grammaticality judgments were significantly above chance (Exp. 1a), and probe tone ratings were predicted by frequency of occurrence (Exp. 1b). In Experiment 2 we presented a familiarization sequence containing one sub-set of pitches that occurred more frequently on strong than on weak metrical positions and another sub-set that did the opposite. Overall frequency of occurrence was balanced between both sub-sets. Grammaticality judgments were again above chance (Exp. 2a) and probe tone ratings were higher for pitches occurring on strong metrical positions (Exp. 2b). These findings implicate metrical structure in tonal knowledge acquisition.


Entrainment; Meter; Modulation (Music); Music – Instruction and study; Musical meter and rhythm; Psychology; Statistical learning; Tonality


Music | Music Pedagogy | Psychology | Quantitative Psychology

File Format


Degree Grantor

University of Nevada, Las Vegas




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