On the way home tonight on NPR's "All Things Considered" I heard listeners singing their entries for the theme song lyrics contest.
Lately, I've been reading This is Your Brain on Music by Daniel Levitin (now available in paperback). Levitin introduces the counter-intuitive concept of contour. It's maybe not so important to music or musicians as it is to our brain and our cognitive grasp of how music works.
Contour is a relatively gross characterization of a song's identity. However its utility has been shown in various laboratory experiments. There is evidence that for melodies we do not know well (such as a melody we have only heard a few times), the contour is remembered better than the actual intervals (Massaro, Kallman & Kelly, 1980). In contrast, the exact interval patterns of familiar melodies are well remembered, and adults can readily notice contour-preserving alterations of the intervallic pattern (Dowling, 1994). Infants respond to contour before they respond to melody; that is, infants cannot distinguish between a song and a melodic alteration of that song, so long as contour is preserved. Only as the child matures is he able to attend to the melodic information. Some animals show a similar inability to distinguish different alterations of a melody when contour is preserved (Hulse & Page, 1988). One explanation of why the contour of a melody might be more readily processed is because it is a more general description of the melody, and it subsumes the interval information. It is only with increasing familiarity, or increasing cognitive abilities, that the intervallic details become perceptually important.
The concept of "contour" was in evidence as I heard these NPR listeners try to sing the ATC theme song. It's not an easy tune. And though different listeners settled on radically different solutions to the question of pitch, all of them matched the contour.
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