Psychoacoustics is a part of music acoustics which deals with the perception of tone and sound. The auditory impressions of humans are not only influenced by human hearing and the physical events (sound events) that affect it. One of the key debates in the field of psychoacoustics is about expression.

'Listening' with the Eyes

"Listening" with the Eyes

In various contexts it has been found that acoustic impressions can be influenced by visual impressions. Known is the McGurk-Effect 1976 shown by the psychologist Harry McGurk: Our brain corrects acoustic perceptions to coordinate them with simultaneous visual perceptions (such as observation of the lip movements of other speakers). Colors, too, have an impact on the perception of sound: people who hear the sound of a moving express train while at the same time being shown video footage of trains in different colors thought that red trains were louder than all others (although the sounds were actually always at the same volume). These effects are culture-dependent: In Japanese, the McGurk effect is weaker and the “red train” effect stronger than in Germans.1)

A study with German guitar makers, guitar players and amateurs also revealed that visual impressions affect quality judgments on tonewood:

Obviously, they orientated themselves for an overall judgment predominantly visually and voted analogously to the instrument makers for a narrow, uniform year ring construction. A connection between tree ring construction and tonal properties of the instruments is not recognizable!2)

The same applies to performance of music itself. Especially in fast parts, the successful performance of which is experienced by the listeners as virtuosity and which require rapid changes of hand posture, it can happen

that the visually perceptible movements and the sound impression are difficult to reconcile … The body of the virtuoso, his instrument and his movements are obviously not transparent … but cause ambiguous visual and auditory stimuli.3)

Virtuosity and Speed

Virtuosity and Speed

Whether music is actually performed in a virtuoso manner can usually only be partially judged by untrained listeners. According to brain research, electric oscillations occurring in the brain adapt to the rhythm of music we are listening to. However, untrained listeners have more difficulties recognizing melodies that are played slowly than those played quickly.4) This explains why the tempo of a performance often but falsely tends to be understood as a criterium for its quality:

Virtuoso performances are recognized by the audience and always rewarded – however, a non-specialist audience generally recognizes virtuosity only through great speed. … A non-specialist audience does not recognize tempo absolutely, but it is very well perceived when the players are at their speed limit. Then also inaccuracies are forgiven, because the piece is recognizably “difficult”.5)

The tempo of the play has a strong effect on the listener, because

speed … is a criterion of the emotional content of music.6)

For example, listeners expect dissonant and minor-tonal music to be played faster than music in major because they want to experience harmonic resolution.7)

At the same time, universal mechanisms of perception seem to work. Members of African Mafa culture first confronted with Western music

were more likely to classify pieces with higher tempo as happy and pieces with lower tempo as scared/fearful, whereas for sad pieces, no correlation with tempo was observed.8)

Consonance and Diaphony

Consonance and Diaphony

The more similar the overtones of different sounds are, the better they seem to fit together; we perceive it as consonant. This applies in descending order to the intervals prime, octave, fifth, fourth and third. However, this is not a universal, but a culturally shaped feeling. In some (spatially and temporally unrelated) cultures, there is beat diaphony, a polyphony that seeks to suppress overtones (especially through the use of the chest voice) and to merge sounds (through the phenomenon of beat) in order to create dissonance so that the sounds are no longer perceived separately. Here thirds and seconds in parallels predominate.9)

Musical Equilibration

Major and Minor

The Theory of Musical Equilibration attempts to psychoacoustically explain the effect of major and minor harmonies.

The Repetition

Overwhelming by Structure

A universal peculiarity of music over language is frequent, deliberate repetition. This applies both to their form and their content. For the listener, therefore, music whose form language he is familiar with is in some ways “predictable”. On the other hand, certain musical formulas and themes are remembered by repeated repetition as “chunked sequences”; it is “occupied” by it:

This condition contributes to the pervasiveness of earworms; once they've gripped your mind, they insist on playing through until a point of rest … whether you want it or not. … This sense of being moved, of being taken and carried along in the mode of a procedural enactment, when the knowledge was presented (by simple sounding) in a way that seemed to imply a more declarative mode can be exhilarating, immersive and boundary-dissolving: all characteristics of strong experience of music … The listener feels penetrated by music, or merged with it, or feels that he or she is being played by the music, to cause the listener to imagine himself or herself as the performer, or experience the music as executing his or her will …10)

The Chill Reaction

Emotional Overwhelming

However, the measurable reactions of the audience to music can be very different. An extreme case is the quite rare chill reaction:

In numerous series of experiments we have found that chill appears more often in unexpected changes in the texture of the piece of music, that they are preferably triggered by the voice and voice-like instruments, such as strings or the saxophone, and that an increase in the brilliance of the sound also promoted this experience. Numerous hearing characteristics affect the frequency and strength of chills. For example, there is a “chill personality”. These listeners are familiar with music, rate music as “important to their lives,” identify more with their favorite music, and hear music more often in everyday life.11)

Psychoacoustics of the Ukulele

Absence of Bass Note Theory

Often the ukulele is described as a happy instrument. Jake Shimabukuro attributes this effect to the fact that the high pitch of the ukulele gives the impression that the bass notes of their chords are missing. As a result, the chords are perceived as open, light and cheerful. This conception is called the “absence of the bass note theory”.12)

1) Hugo Fastl: "Hören + Akustik = Psychoakustik". In: 16. Multidisziplinäres Kolloquium der GEERS-Stiftung 2012; vol. 19, pp. 67–73.
2) Gunter Ziegenhals: “Resonanzholzmerkmale von Gitarrendecken”. In: Fachausschuss Musikalische Akustik in der DEGA (Hg.): (Musikalische) Akustik im Dienste des Musikinstrumentenbaus, Zwora, September 2001, pp. 20–23.
3) Camilla Bork: “Text versus Performanz – zu einem Dualismus der Musikgeschichtsschreibung.” In: Michele Calella, Nikolaus Urbanek (Hg.): Historische Musikwissenschaft: Grundlagen und Perspektiven. Springer-Verlag 2017, pp. 397–398
4) Max-Planck-Gesellschaft: Musik im Gehirn, October 26, 2015, accessed 22.8.2016.
5) Utz Grimminger: Aspekte der Orchesterarbeit (2007), p. 5
6) Johannes Flecker: Die Bedeutung von Musik für die Gestaltung von Markenpersönlichkeit. Heidelberg: Springer-Verlag 2014, S. 36
7) Ebd. 36–37.
8) Thomas Fritz et al.: “Universal Recognition of Three Basic Emotions in Music”. In: Current Biology 19, 14.4.2009, p. 574
9) See Marie-Theres Himmler: UE "Zur Vielfalt tonräumlicher Gestaltungsmöglichkeiten", Wintersemester 2009.
10) Elizabeth Hellmuth Margulis: “Repetition and emotive communication in music versus speech.” In: Frontiers in Psychology, 4.4.2013, p. 218
12) Higashi, Guy Scott Shigemi: Musical Communitas: Gathering Around the 'Ukulele In Hawai'i and the Foursquare Church. Dissertation. Pasadena: Fuller Theological Seminary 2011. 119, 131