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Vassilakis, P.N. and Kendall, R.A. (2006).  Musical tension/release patterns and auditory roughness profiles in an improvisation on the Middle-Eastern mijwiz.  Proceedings of the 9th ICMPC (International Conference on Music Perception and Cognition): 361.  M. Baroni, A. R. Addessi, R. Caterina, and M. Costa, editors.  Bologna: Bononia University Press.


Attaching meaningful and emotional qualities to instrumental pieces of music relies largely on the recognition of musical tension/release patterns, set up using various sonic and sonic-organization devices. Within the Western art musical tradition, such devices include contrasts in terms of pitch, rhythm, dynamics, tonal center, orchestration, performance technique, sensory dissonance (auditory roughness), etc. Performance practices outside the Western art musical tradition place increased importance on roughness for communicating expressive intent, often accompanied by a decrease in the importance of other relevant devices. For example, the Middle-Eastern mijwiz (double clarinet) is constructed and performed in ways that limit the possibilities for most sonic contrasts, relying mainly on the exploration of narrow harmonic intervals and their corresponding rough sounds.

We estimated the roughness time-profile of a recorded, stylized improvisation on the mijwiz using SRA (Vassilakis; http://www.acousticslab.com/roughness), a custom, online roughness analysis application that incorporates a previously-tested roughness estimation model [Vassilakis, P.N. (2005). "Auditory roughness as a means of musical expression," Selected Reports in Ethnomusicology 12: 119-144]. The roughness profile was compared to tension/release patterns, indicated by the improviser (Racy, UCLA) and twenty Western-trained musicians in a perceptual experiment designed on Kendall's Music-Experiment-Development-System (MEDS). Subjects first listened to the ~1-minute-long-piece as often as necessary to become familiar with it. Then, while listening, they tapped two keys on the computer keyboard to indicate either an increase or a decrease in musical tension. Subjects were instructed to continue tapping throughout the increase/decrease in tension and to not tap if no change in tension was sensed.

The results suggest that auditory roughness is a good predictor of the tension/release pattern indicated by the improviser. The patterns obtained by the rest of the subjects show a different trend. Roughness appears to be just one of the cues guiding musical tension judgments, often overridden by tonal and temporal cues, and/or by expectations of tension/resolution raised by such cues. It is argued that the observed differences between the performer’s expressive intent and the listeners’ interpretation support understanding musical tension and release as culture-specific concepts that are guided by the equally culture-specific musical cues used to organize and recognize them.

[Special thanks to Prof A. J. Racy, Ethnomusicology Department, University of California, Los Angeles, for his expertise.]