Music Theory

Music Cognition Symposium


The Eastman/UR/Cornell/Buffalo Music Cognition Symposium is an informal gathering of people interested in music cognition. The symposium meets four times a year (twice in the fall and twice in the spring) on Saturday afternoons, usually at Eastman. The symposium receives funding from the University of Rochester’s Committee for Interdisciplinary Studies (UCIS).

Often, the symposium features invited guests—leading researchers in music cognition from around the United States and beyond. Symposia may also feature presentations of ongoing work by members of the community, and discussions of readings and topics in music cognition. Recent topics have included performance expression, probabilistic modeling, melodic expectation, and music-language connections.

Symposia are open to the public, and all are welcome. To be added to the symposium’s e-mail mailing list, contact David Temperley (

Music Cognition Symposia, 2018-19

Saturday, September 22, 2018
Psychology of Rhythm: Individual Differences and Therapeutic Applications
Guest speaker: Simone Dalla Bella (University of Montreal)
Ciminelli Lounge (Eastman Student Living Center, 100 Gibbs St., Rochester), 2:00-5:00 p.m.

Saturday, October 27, 2018
Guest Speaker: David Huron (Ohio State University)
Ciminelli Lounge (Eastman Student Living Center, 100 Gibbs St., Rochester), 2:00-5:00 p.m.


Music Cognition Symposium Steering Committee

  • University of Rochester: Elizabeth West Marvin and David Temperley (Eastman), Joyce McDonough (Linguistics), Anne Luebke (Biomedical Engineering), Zhiyao Duan (Electrical and Computational Engineering)
  • Cornell University: Carol Krumhansl
  • University at Buffalo: Peter Pfordresher

Visiting speakers to the music cognition symposium from past years

Gavin Bidelman
Roger Chaffin
Elaine Chew
Sarah Creel
Roger Dannenberg
Steven Demorest
Mary Farbood
Sid Fels
Jessica Graun
Peter Gregersen
Andrea Halpern
Erin Hannon
David Huron
Sean Hutchins
Petr Janata
Ed Large
Steve Larson

Fred Lerdahl
Dan Levitin
Charles Limb
Justin London
Psyche Loui
Elizabeth Margulis
Steve McAdams
Devin McAuley
Josh McDermott
Laura McPherson
Ken’ichi Miyazaki
Rosemary Mountain
Eugene Narmour
Jean-Jacques Nattiez
Caroline Palmer
Bryan Pardo

Ani Patel
Isabelle Peretz
Dirk-Jan Povel
Bruno Repp
Jean-Claude Risset
Frank Russo
Gottfried Schlaug
Mark Schmuckler
Xavier Serra
John Sloboda
Michael Thaut
Barbara Tillman
Laurel Trainor
Sandra Trehub
Victoria Williamson
Robert Zatorre




David Huron is Arts and Humanities Distinguished Professor at the Ohio State University, where he holds joint appointments in the School of Music and in the Center for Cognitive and Brain Sciences. Originally from Canada, Huron received a Ph.D. in musicology in 1989 from the University of Nottingham. Huron was the Ernest Bloch lecturer at the University of California, Berkeley (1999-2000), the Astor lecturer at Oxford University (2011), and the Donald Wort lecturer at the University of Cambridge (2012-2013). He is the recipient of the Society for Music Theory’s Wallace Berry Award, and the Society for Music Perception and Cognition’s lifetime Achievement Award. He is author of “Sweet Anticipation: Music and the Psychology of Expectation,” and “Voice Leading: The Science behind a Musical Art,” both published by MIT Press.


Prof. Huron will give a series of three lectures on a unified theme: “The Science of Sad Sounds.” The first one is part of the Eastman theory department’s colloquium series and is on Friday, Oct. 26, at 3:30 in Hatch Recital Hall. The second and third will be part of the Oct. 27 music cognition symposium.

SERIES TITLE: Gloomy Sundays, Wicked Games, and Broken Hearts: The Science of Sad Sounds

What is the appeal of sad music? How does music evoke tears, or transport a listener to a nostalgic reverie? This series of three lectures focuses on three emotions—melancholy, grief, and nostalgia—and their many musical manifestations. Lectures integrate behavioral and physiological studies with cultural and music analyses, in an effort to understand the paradoxical musical enfatuation with sad music.


Lecture 1: The Sounds of Sadness

What makes a sound sound sad? Kraepelin (1899) described sad voice as quieter, slower, low in pitch, more monotone (narrow pitch contour), and exhibiting more mumbled articulation. Research on sad music has documented these same features, suggesting a close speech-music homologue.
       However, this low-slow-quiet configuration fails to offer a complete account. In Samuel Barber’s Adagio for strings, for example, the passage most likely to evoke tears in listeners involves a high-loud-intense texture. The paradox is resolved when two sadness-related affects are distinguished: a low-arousal quiescent form (melancholy), and a high-arousal crying form (grief). In responding to severe loss, is it common for a person to alternate between periods of grief and periods of melancholy (called the mourning cycle). We will see that Barber’s Adagio is consistent with a portrayal of the mourning cycle—exhibiting both low-slow-quiet (melancholic) passages as well as high-loud-intense (grief) passages.

Lecture 2: A Theory of Sadness: Melancholy, Grief, and Nostalgia

What good is feeling sad? In this lecture I present the Triadic Theory of Stress. I review physiological, behavioral, developmental, cognitive, phenomenological, and sociological features of melancholy, grief, and nostalgia.
     The theory highlights the central role of the immune system, especially the role of pro-inflammatory cytokines. For example, the common features of weeping (watery eyes, nasal congestion, constricted pharynx, eratic breathing) are classic symptoms of a systemic allergic response. Moreover, recent research offers excellent evidence implicating depression (a sadness pathology) as a type of autoimmune disorder. We will see that there is a coherent story to tell that accounts for a wide range of phenomena, from the neurochemical to the subjective experience. We will also see that the Triadic Theory of Stress is able to illuminate various cultural expressions, such as self-injury associated with grief in many societies, or the joyful tears shed by beauty pageant winners.

Lecture 3: Suffering Music Gladly: On the Enjoyment of Sad Music

Sadness is a negatively valenced emotion that people normally aim to avoid. It makes sense then, that about half of all listeners avoid nominally sad music for the very good reason that it makes them feel sad. However, the remaining 50 percent of listeners report enjoying nominally sad music, and about 10 percent of listeners claim that sad music is the music they most enjoy. How is it possible that sad sounds might be enjoyed by some listeners?
     Research on sad music enjoyment implicates personality: enjoyment is associated with a particular pattern of the four factors involved in trait empathy. We will see that there is little scientific evidence in support of Aristotle’s theory that exposure to tragic portrayals has the effect of purging negative emotions (catharsis). Instead, we will see evidence that portrayals of sadness tend to evoke feelings of compassion in empathetic listeners and that compassion is a positively valenced affect.