This page includes a calendar of lecture topics.

Course Meeting Times

Lectures: 2 sessions / week, 2 hours / session


Neural Coding and Perception of Sound (HST.723J) or permission of instructor. The course will be as self-contained as possible. We will introduce the musical, physical, mathematical, psychological, and neuroscience concepts we need as we go along. Coverage of topics will begin with concrete musical listening examples, discuss the results of systematic psychological studies, and then delve into possible neural representations and mechanisms.


Lecture plus demonstrations and discussions.



Deutsch, D., ed. The Psychology of Music. 2nd ed. San Diego, CA: Academic Press, 1998. ISBN: 9780122135651.

Buy at MIT Press Handel, S. Listening: An Introduction to the Perception of Auditory Events. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1989. ISBN: 9780262081795.

Levitin, D. This Is Your Brain On Music. New York, NY: Dutton Adult/Penguin, 2006. ISBN: 9780525949695.

Buy at MIT Press Snyder, B. Music and Memory. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2001. ISBN: 9780262194419.


Aello, R., ed. Musical Perceptions. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 1994. ISBN: 9780195064759.

McAdams, S., and E. Bigand. Thinking in Sound: The Cognitive Psychology of Human Audition. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 1993. ISBN: 9780198522584.

Moore, B. C. J. An Introduction to the Psychology of Hearing. 5th ed. San Diego, CA: Academic Press, 2003. ISBN: 9780125056281.

Coursework and Grading

Problem sets 10% One problem set will be on harmonic structure and tuning systems. The other will cover topics in music perception and cognition.
Musical examples 10% Find 5 musical examples from any genre that illustrate or illuminate different aspects of music perception and cognition related to melody, harmony, rhythm, your own musical preference, and some aspect of your choosing. We will listen to them as a class and discuss them.
Reading assignment and presentation 10% A relevant paper will be chosen, presented (10-15'), and discussed by the class. This can be one of the papers on the reading list or any paper that you feel is important or insightful.
Fundamental unsolved questions in music psychology – 3-4 page outline/discussion 20% I have compiled a list of unsolved questions in music psychology. Please choose from the list or suggest your own problem. Write up an account of the nature of the problem (1-2 paragraphs), its theoretical significance (1 paragraph), current theories (if any, 1-3 paragraphs), two plausible hypothetical explanations (2-4 paragraphs), ideas concerning how the question might be solved or hypotheses tested (1 paragraph), and some assessment of how soon the problem will likely be solved (1 paragraph). Each student will present a problem and outline their thinking about it, which will form the basis for a class discussion.
Term project 50% of final grade A research paper, review paper, or research project (e.g. psychological or physiological experiment, computer model/simulation) related to the psychology of music. Topics will be presented orally and discussed in class in mid-March. Project results will be presented and discussed in class in the last two weeks of class. Target length of paper will depend on nature of project. Final papers will be due on the last day of class. I will be happy to read and give comment on outlines and drafts at any stage of preparation.

General Themes

I group the themes we will cover in terms of Quality and Form, Memory and Anticipation, Codes and Computations, Parallels with Speech and Language, Emotion and Meaning, Psychological Functions, and Origins. We will look at each of these themes in terms of several perspectives: the structure of sound, the perceptual psychology of hearing, our own internal experiences of sound and music, music theory and practice, the neuroscience of the auditory system and the brain at large, computational neuroscience and neural networks, and the psychology of perception, cognition, memory, and emotion.

Quality and Form involves how we distinguish different musical sounds: pitches, timbres, consonances, musical intervals, chords, melody, and rhythmic patterns. Some of the questions we will address involve how we perceive the basic elements and patterns of music: How do we distinguish pitches? When do sound-objects stand apart or fuse together? What pitches do we hear when a chord is sounded? Why do octaves sound similar? What are the acoustic and perceptual dimensions of timbre? How do we recognize melodies? Why do we perceive transposed melodies as being similar, essentially identical? How are individual events and their rhythmic organization perceived?

Memory and anticipation involves how we experience sounds in the context of others that came before. Music unfolds over time on several timescales, from subtle differences in expressive timing to note-transitions to melodies and tonal centers to larger, longer structures of repetition and change. This involves memory and anticipation on many levels - echoic memory, working memory, and long term memory. How do tonal and rhythmic expectations arise? What is their neural basis? How are temporal expectations created and violated? How does music exploit them? To what degree are these expectations universal and to what degree are they the result of cultural conditioning?

Codes and computations concerns the neural processes that subserve our experience of music. How does the auditory system represent sounds? How (and why) are pitches at the fundamentals of harmonic complexes heard? What kinds of neural representations and information processing operations are involved? We will examine different neural codes and computations that are based on activation of specific subsets of neurons (channel codes and connectionist networks) and on patterns of spikes (temporal codes and neural time delay/timing networks). How does the nervous system carry out these operations? How much of the structure of music arises directly from the neural codes in the auditory system? How much arises through learned associations and modification of synaptic connections? What kinds of neural net models have been proposed to explain various aspects of musical experience? What kinds are possible? What assumptions underlie high-level, neurological models of music's various psychological functions?

Parallels and differences between music, speech, and language explores similarities and differences between music and speech sounds on one hand, and music and language structure on the other. Although the same auditory system subserves both music and speech perception, music and speech typically utilize different sets of acoustic contrasts as primitive features (e.g. tonal music depends on pitch relations, while (nontonal) languages use phonetic elements based on timbral distinctions such as vowel spectra, attack, spectral flux). Can a comprehensive model of auditory tonal quality (timbre) account for the salient distinctions that phonetic systems utilize?

Emotion and pleasure are essential parts of musical experience. We create and listen to music for our own pleasure. Why is music pleasurable in the first place? How is tension created and relieved? Why (how) is "expressive timing" expressive? Why does music (sometimes) have profound effects on our emotions? What is the neural basis of these effects? What areas of the brain are involved in emotion and meaning in music? How can highly artificial, highly unnatural structurings of sound have meaning for us? Are they tied to mechanisms/habits related to speech perception? Is musical meaning dependent on previous experience and cultural associations, or does it (also) emulate internal body-rhythms associated with our emotions?

Psychological functions of music involve the way that music is used by individuals and groups to achieve different ends. Music can be used for mood control, auditory-cognitive interest, meditation and stress reduction, dance, distraction, symbolic ritual, expression of self- and collective identity, evocation of feelings of nostalgia, religious awe, patriotism, anger, hate, joy, love, and sorrow. Different types of music lend themselves to particular psychological functions, and different psychological functions presumably engage different neuronal circuits and processes in the brain. To which uses one puts music may be a function of one's personality and culture. What would a full-blown neurologically-grounded theory of personality and music preference look like?

Origins concerns how we as a species and as individuals come to be able to deal with the highly complex structure of music. This can arise from evolutionarily-primitive general-purpose mechanisms, recent evolutionary adaptations, and/or associations/connections acquired in development. Is music perception and cognition parasitical on speech reception and language comprehension mechanisms or are there more general faculties for handling temporal patterns, sequences, and associations that support both music and language cognition? What are the similarities and differences between music and language? Is the perception of music a recently evolved capability (and if so, why), or is it based on basic perceptual and cognitive mechanisms that are much more ancient? Do animals apprehend musical structure in some meaningful sense? Do they derive pleasure from it? What dimensions of music perception and cognition would we predict are likely to be shared by other species? How do infants perceive music, how does this change over time?

Since this course is focused on perception and cognition, there are many aspects of the psychology of music that we will deal with only tangentially: e.g. music and personality, music and cultural identity, musical talent and creative genius. If there is sufficient interest in these areas (as well as others), we will organize space to address them.



Course introduction

Overviews: structure of music, music's psychological and social functions

2 Overview: auditory perception and the time sense  
3 Overview of the auditory system  
4 Pitch  
5 Pitch mechanisms and neurocomputational models  
6 Central representation of pitch - problems and prospects  
7 Timbre  
8 Consonance, dissonance, and roughness  
9 Scales, tuning and harmony  
10 Melody  


Tonal expectation (guest lecture/demonstration by Elizabeth Chew, MIT)

12 Music therapy: clinical applications of the neuropsychology of music (guest lecture by Dr. Kathleen Howland, Boston Conservatory and Wellesley MA Public Schools)  
13 Music and the cerebral cortex (guest lecture by Dr. Daniel Bendor, MIT)  
14 Absolute pitch, tone deafness, and cortical representation of music (guest lecture by Psyche Louie, Harvard Medical School) Problem set due
15 Neurology of music and music-based therapies (guest lecture by Dr. Gottfried Schlaug, director of Music and Neuroimaging Laborabory at Harvard Medical School)  
16 Rhythm, timing, and expectation  
17 Emotion, meaning, expectation and reward  
18 Imaging studies of creativity and musical performance (guest lecture by Aaron Berkowitz, Harvard University)  
19 Formal theories of music cognition and language Fundamental problems paper due

Developmental psychology of music

Guest lecture by Adena Schachner on beat synchronization in animals

Listening assignments writeups due

Student paper presentations: Janata (2003); Chen and Zatorre (2006)

21 Music perception by cochlear implant users (Guest lecture by Ray Goldsworthy, Sensimetrics)  
22 Evolutionary origins Student paper presentations: Bhatara on autism, 3 Emotions paper
23 Music and speech  
24 Student final project presentations  

Music and personality, music and multimodal interactions

Audio-visual interactions

26 Wrap up and recapitulation Final projects due