Perception of mode, rhythm, and contour in unfamiliar melodies: Effects of age and experience

Andrea R. Halpern, Bucknell University
J.C. Bartlett
W.J. Dowling


We explored the ability of older (60-80 years old) and younger (18-23 years old) musicians and nonmusicians to judge the similarity of transposed melodies varying on rhythm, mode, and/or contour (Experiment 1) and to discriminate among melodies differing only in rhythm, mode, or contour (Experiment 2). Similarity ratings did not vary greatly among groups, with tunes differing only by mode being rated as most similar. In the same/different discrimination task, musicians performed better than nonmusicians, but we found no age differences. We also found that discrimination of major from minor tunes was difficult for everyone, even for musicians. Mode is apparently a subtle dimension in music, despite its deliberate use in composition and despite people's ability to label minor as "sad" and major as "happy."