Max Planck Institute for Empirical Aesthetics

`Beautiful passages´. Formal aspects of listeners’ preferences in pop music

Very often, pleasurable moments during music listening are tied to particular passages, which may influence the perceived aesthetic value of a piece as a whole. In an exploratory study, we compared listeners’ self-chosen beautiful passages in poplar music in relation to their location within the overall structure of the piece. Typically, only low-level parameters such as loudness, tempo or harmony are known to result in emotional responses. However, these responses might not only occur because of mere acoustical features on local level, but also because of large-scale structural relationships. In order to compare the listeners’ responses within one musical genre, we focus on passages of popular music with comparable formal structure (N=365) and compare listeners’ choices with songs of similar structure. We show that frequently recurring form parts such as the chorus are not necessarily “beautiful passages”, but that listeners tend to focus on singular events such as the bridge or on special acoustic effects. We aim to describe types of listening strategies towards musical form that listeners share within a particular genre. Pop music is particularly suitable, because most listeners have a comprehensive implicit knowledge, show high sensitivity towards learned expectations and violations on a local level – and might even be capable to mentally constructing the overall piece. Since there is a big discrepancy between the analytical approaches towards musical form and empirical evidence of its perception, this explorative study might convey some common nominators.


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Lea Fink is a researcher at the Max Planck Institute for Empirical Aesthetics in Frankfurt, Germany. She studied Piano and Music Theory in Rostock, complementing her studies in Boston and Vienna. Before coming to Frankfurt, she was head of education and outreach with the Gewandhausorchester Leipzig 2012-2014 and of The Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie Bremen 2014-2018. Her research focuses on perception and understanding of musical form in Western music theory.

Lea Fink