Vol. 30 Issue 4 Reviews

Justin London: Hearing in Time: Psychological Aspects of Musical Meter

Hardcover, 2004, ISBN 0-19-516081-9, 195 pages, illustrated, notes, bibliography, index, US$ 39.95; Oxford University Press, 198 Madison Avenue, New York, New York 10016, USA; telephone (+1) 800-451-7556; electronic mail orders@opu.usa.org; Web www.oup.com/.

Reviewed by John Ashley Burgoyne
Montreal, Quebec, Canada

Book CoverOne might call Justin London’s Hearing in Time the Tonal Pitch Space (Fred Lerdahl, Oxford University Press, 2001)of meter. Attempting to formalize meter using perceptual foundations, its grand conclusion is the “many meters hypothesis,” which states that we internalize as distinct cognitive patterns not only meters as conceived traditionally but also patterns of subdivision and expressive timing. At first, this hypothesis seems to be in conflict with the generalizing approach of the rest of the book, which seeks to model meter within a culturally universal framework. Nonetheless, the extreme specificity of the many meters hypothesis is precisely what the generality enables: by exploring the consequences of empirically derived limits of human perception of meter exhaustively, Mr. London demonstrates that the many meters hypothesis is more manageable than it might seem. Like any work this ambitious, Hearing in Time is not universally successful, but it is a well-weighed and unique monograph that brings the tradition of Lerdahl and Jackendoff (A Generative Theory of Tonal Music, MIT Press, 1983) to a popular topic in contemporary music theory by way of the most recent studies of metrical perception.

Setting the foundations for a theory based on the experience of listeners, the first chapter describes meter as a specialized form of entrainment behavior that directs human attention to periodic stimuli. This behavior organizes such stimuli hierarchically, according to their context, and is robust to local variations, such as syncopation. The number of levels in this hierarchy can vary, and for Mr. London, different depths of hierarchy constitute different meters, e.g., slow 3/4 is not the same as fast 3/4. The chapter draws heavily on psychological research in self-sustaining oscillators and seeks to differentiate cycling levels of listeners’ attentional energy, which cannot bear musical accent meaningfully, from musical phenomena, which can.

The second chapter continues to survey the psychological grounding for the theory, focusing on the bounds of temporal perception: what are the fastest and slowest inter-onset intervals that humans can perceive as metrical, and which are preferred? The most novel idea is the “basic space” of this theory, a hierarchical map of meters that is organized spatially in a fashion reminiscent of Gottfried Weber’s chart of the major and minor keys. Mr. London’s Pythagorical exploration of the perceptual implications of this map maintains forward momentum and underlines his fundamental hypothesis that one cannot hear a beat as such without the perceptual possibility of hearing at least one level of subdivision.

The next three chapters set rules of interaction between rhythm and meter. Chapters 3 and 5 develop the hypothesis that because meter is a mode of attention and the human mind cannot attend simultaneously to phenomena in more than one mode, polymeter cannot exist as a perceptual phenomenon. Meter may occasionally be ambiguous or vague, but a listener will nonetheless need to develop some single mode of attending to it. Chapter 4 insists on a continuous, cyclical model for meter, outlining five well-formedness rules for these cycles. Mr. London deems preference rules unnecessary because “very often, there is no single, correct metrical construal for a given rhythm” (p. 72). By virtue of the perceptual limits stated in the second chapter, however, the choice of tempo can restrict the number of well-formed meters for a given performance considerably. Chapter 6 puts the principles from the preceding three chapters into practice in a narrative analysis of the first movement of Ludwig van Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5.

No theory of meter can claim to be culturally universal without accounting for non-isochronous meters, as the seventh and eighth chapters do here. The basic metric space accrues more subtlety in the form of a new well-formedness rule that enforces maximal evenness. This notion is borrowed from scale theory, and although well intentioned, it is fraught with uncomfortable conflicts of metaphor between the pitch and time domains. Chapter 7 provides a plausible hypothesis for a perceptual basis of maximal evenness, but no empirical research is cited that would prove or disprove it, and the informal proof that is presented relies on an assumption about interpolation of shorter metric beats within longer rhythmic phenomena that is consistent with but not a direct consequence of the first six chapters. Chapter 8 qualifies this tenuous new well-formedness rule with a caveat that it need not always apply to metric subcycles after demonstrating that for several well-known timelines from non-Western music, its form from Chapter 7 does not hold. There is much good reasoning in these chapters, but one cannot escape the feeling that despite its popularity in contemporary music theory, maximal evenness is not quite the unifying rule that Mr. London was seeking for non-isochronous meters.

Chapter 9 treats theories of expressive timing in performance before launching the many-meters hypothesis. Here, Mr. London takes great care to separate what is speculative from what is not, yielding a plausible and consistent, if yet unproven, hypothesis. The book concludes with a short “coda” that treats metric and rhythmic complexity, Mr. London’s original goal in writing his book.

Overall, the book is well written and researched. The text is dense and scholarly without being ponderous (at only 195 pages, there is no room for extraneous words); the pace is even and it reads well. The luminaries of 18th-century music theory figure alongside the most current research in music perception and rhythmic theory, and the bibliography alone is a valuable resource for anybody interested in meter. Mr. London explains most of his theory in careful detail with ample and illustrative figures and examples, and the text should be accessible to a wide audience. Much of the enjoyment in reading the book comes from its clever presentation: having accepted the surveys of relevant psychological experiments, the reader is repeatedly and pleasantly surprised at the consequences of their seemingly innocuous results.

Despite Mr. London’s care, the formalisms in Hearing in Time lack the rigor that an engineer or a mathematician would require. Although it appears that it would be possible to implement the theory in software or hardware, this process would not be trivial and would likely uncover ambiguities and internal contradictions. (In this regard, the book is also analogous to Tonal Pitch Space.) Likewise, the fascinating idea of tempo thresholds between different metric interpretations of the same score is treated only briefly and without the careful modeling that characterizes the rest of the book. Anthropologists would seek a more nuanced identification of cultural universals: whereas the components of the theory that rest on empirical psychology are less debatable, the equally foundational assumption of hierarchy is a more open question.

Hearing in Time is a valuable survey of the work researchers in music cognition have written on meter from the perspective of a music theorist, and it shows that these sometimes-separate communities still have many ideas with which to inform each other. The ambition of the work is commendable, and I can forgive its shortcomings for its novel and provocative ideas. Mr. London has a strong command of his most important sources in both music cognition and music theory and excels at combining them. One should applaud him for engaging non-isochronous and non-Western meters, and although there remains work to be done, this book inspires one to undertake it. I expect that before long, readers of this journal will have implemented many components of the theory, and I look forward to the results.