Schema Theory
as a

Music Theory Online 21.2 (2015)

Crosslinguistic Variability and Generalization

4.1. Premise and Paraphrase.
4.2. The Replication of Patterning.


[4.1.1] “Languages are acknowledged to vary in wide-ranging ways. The cross-linguistic generalizations that do exist are explained by domain-general cognitive processes or by the functions of the constructions involved (Croft 2001, Haspelmath 2008, Evans and Levinson 2009, Boas 2010)” (Goldberg 2013, 15–16).


[4.1.2] Construction grammarians reject the notion of an innate Universal Grammar and the idea that it explains the commonalities between languages. Instead, the commonalities are viewed as a result of similarities in social structures, in our physical beings, and in our interactions with the environment. In studies of music analysis these issues hardly arise, given what until recently has been the strong Eurocentric assumptions of the prevailing methods. Because schema theory in music makes few if any assumptions about the nature of musical patterns, it is not limited to music in any one particular style.

The Replication of Patterning

[4.2.1] We follow Leonard B. Meyer in relating musical style to a “replication of patterning, whether in human behavior or in the artifacts produced by human behavior, that results from a series of choices made within some set of constraints” (1989, 3). Such replications of patterning can be found in Mozart, to be sure, but also in Indian ragas, Balinese gong kebyar, the Persian radif, and folk or popular musics the world over. Meyer's choice of terminology reflects his longstanding focus on domain-general cognitive functions—Gestalt principles, expectation, closure, similarity, association—shared by listeners in any culture or era.

[4.2.2] Preferential replication creates differences in how frequently a given pattern is perceived to occur, which in turn creates opportunities for statistical learning. To understand which patterns listeners are most likely to have learned, researchers can turn to corpus studies (discussed further in the section on Usage-Based Knowledge). To understand if listeners in different cultures hear musical patterns in the same way we would need extensive crosscultural studies in music cognition. Only a few such studies have been carried out (e.g., Curtis and Bharucha 2009), so most questions about crosscultural music abilities remain unanswered. "World music analysis," as a subfield of music theory, is only in its infancy (the online journal Analytical Approaches to World Music at is a promising development). And although the analysis of ethnic musics has always been a concern of ethnomusicology, broadly comparative work has been rare since the 1970s. Given the paucity of supporting data, it is hardly surprising that many estimates of musical universals are little more than inventories of the basic pre-cognitive abilities of the human auditory system (e.g., Dowling and Harwood 1986; Rahn 1983). Thus we view "cross-musical variability and generalization" as an area ripe for cooperative international research.

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