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2003 BY THE REGENTS OF THE UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA


ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.

Music Perception
Fall 2003, Vol. 21, No. 1, 320

Selective Attention In Two-Part Counterpoint


LY N N L . D AV I S O N

Claremont Graduate University


WILLIAM P. BANKS

Pomona College
In two experiments, the influence of unattended musical content on the
processing of attended content was investigated by using melodic interval pairs. In Experiment 1, 2 two-note melodic fragments were played
concurrently in separate pitch registers and with different timbres. Participants with music training were timed as they decided whether one
melody was rising or falling while ignoring the other. Pitch direction (up
or down) and interval type (major second and perfect fifth) of attended
and unattended intervals were orthogonally combined. The measure of
interference was the degree to which the unattended pattern influenced
the processing time and the accuracy of judging the attended melody.
Unattended voice influence from both types of intervals was observed on
the attended voice for seconds, but not fifths, in Experiment 1. The second study replicated the first with interval pairs in overlapping pitch
registers. Influence from the unattended voice was found for both seconds and fifths. Participants found the selection task more difficult when
parts crossed and voices were moving in contrary motion rather than in
the same direction. Implications for the emergence of global stimulus
properties in the context of musical counterpoint are discussed. Both
experiments showed that unattended musical content can affect processing of attended intervals and that pitch distance may serve to moderate
selective attention.
Received February 12, 1999, accepted June 24, 2003

ESEARCH on auditory attention has traditionally been concerned almost


entirely with processing of verbal events. Musical perception has rarely
been the subject of research on attention, even though musical performances
offer the listener a rich variety of attentional tasks. Little is known about
how attention is distributed over the voices of a composition, how melody

Address correspondence to Lynn L. Davison, Psychology Department, Claremont Graduate University, 123 E. Eighth St., Claremont, CA 91311. (e-mail: Lynn.Davison@cgu.edu)
ISSN: 0730-7829. Send requests for permission to reprint to Rights and Permissions,
University of California Press, 2000 Center St., Ste. 303, Berkeley, CA 94704-1223.
3

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Lynn L. Davison & William P. Banks

and harmony may be attended to separately or together, or how different


voices in counterpoint may compete for attention or combine to make a
single perceptual object. For example, a baroque fugue may be heard as an
integral musical pattern, or as a simultaneous composite of independent
melodic themes separately attended. Composers and improvising musicians
presumably know intuitively the attentional constraints on perception of
simultaneous melodic lines and can use them to good effect. In this study,
we examine attentional selection in a very simple example of counterpoint
in an attempt to begin to chart the effect of competing musical events on
selective listening.
One possible outcome with competing voices is that the unattended voice
does not affect processing of the attended voice. This would be a case of
early selection, in which the unattended message is blocked before any type
of cognitive and/or perceptual processing. Some evidence suggests that unattended information is not consciously processed in selective listening.
Cherry (1953; Wood & Cowan, 1995b) found that when presented with
two competing speech messages, listeners often could not even identify the
language of the unattended message. Treisman and Geffen (1967) asked
participants to make a tapping response for target words in either ear while
attending to only one side. Results showed an 87% response rate for the
attended side versus 8% for the unattended message. In a dichotomous
listening task, Deutsch (1982) presented two folk songs to listeners and
found they could not identify anything about the unattended tune.
There is, on the other hand, some evidence for late selection, which proposes that some degree of cognitive processing occurs for unattended information, although the nature of such processing is ill-defined. It has been
shown that semantically related material that is ignored may affect selective listening for identification of target words (Lewis, 1970). In an attempt
to replicate Lewis results however, Treisman, Squire, and Green (1974)
found an effect of relevant unattended information only for words at the
beginning of a list. Other supporting evidence shows that hearing ones
name may cause a shift in attention to the irrelevant channel (Moray, 1959;
Wood & Cowan, 1995a), and presentation of the target word in an ignored message that immediately precedes the same word in a shadowing
task may cause longer reaction times in an effect known as negative priming (Banks, Roberts, & Ciranni, 1995).
In view of the preceding evidence, it is possible that early or late selection may occur depending upon the set of perceptual conditions. Early selection predicts no interference from unattended stimuli and therefore could
apply to events that are perceptually distant (e.g., semantically unrelated
or separated in auditory space). In contrast, interference may or may not
occur with late selection if there is some degree of processing of the unat-

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Selective Attention in Counterpoint

tended information. Moreover, conditions of relatedness could underlie late


selection, and such conditions could prevent selection of a single event.
Whether competing events are perceived independently or as an integral
stimulus is an important factor underlying the selective attention process.
The voices of a musical composition are in fact components of a single
musical texture and may therefore be difficult to attend to separately because the interrelations between them would most likely affect processing
of the unattended voice. Bregman (1990) proposed a framework to determine whether multiple sounds may be grouped together and perceived as a
separate auditory stream. We use the term auditory stream in accordance with Bregmans definition, in that it does not refer to the acoustic
properties of a stimulus, but to a single perceptual unit that may include
one or more sounds. In other words, any combination of auditory events
that is grouped together as a single mental representation may be considered a stream. It follows that the group of events included in a single stream
would be perceived holistically, or as a single object. In the present study,
Bregmans auditory scene analysis will serve as the perceptual framework
for examining whether unattended information affects processing of the
attended voice in a set of varying musical conditions.
In this study, selective attention in the perception of two-note melodic
interval pairs was investigated by determining whether there is any influence of the unattended melody on processing of the attended melody. If the
two intervals are heard independently as separate streams, there should be
little influence or conflict between them, which also supports the early selection view. Alternatively, if influence from the unattended interval is observed on processing of the attended interval, then a global percept, or
single auditory stream, most likely exists.
A number of factors may determine whether there is influence between
competing melodies and whether selection is easy or difficult. The organization of tones according to pitch register may facilitate selective attention
to a single voice (Deutsch, 1982). This is an example of the Gestalt principle of proximity, in that high and low tones may be categorized separately, and once there is sufficient distance in pitch between two melodic
patterns, each voice will be perceived independently. Dowling (1973) found
that when two well-known nursery rhymes were interleaved together (alternating tones from each melody) in a common pitch register the melody
of each was lost. However, at the point just beyond where pitch registers
did not overlap, listeners were able to identify the two melodies correctly,
suggesting the importance of frequency groupings in melodic perception.
Krumhansl and Schmuckler (1986) found that when two different tonal
centers (C and F ) were presented simultaneously in a passage from
Stravinskys Petroushka, participants were not able to distinguish the

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Lynn L. Davison & William P. Banks

two keys. The effect was largely attributable to the overlapping of pitch
registers, implying that the parts might have been distinguished had they
been separated according to high- and low-frequency groupings.
In addition to varying pitch register, composers often employ different
timbres for competing melodic parts when trying to achieve separation
between voices. For example, the Inchworm Song from Hans Christian
Anderson, has the male lead singing Inchworm, inchworm . . . , in a
tenor voice while the children sing a counter melody, Two and two are
four . . . in a high soprano voice; the two parts being distinguished by
both frequency and timbre.
A third factor that may affect whether or not a listener will be able to
distinguish concurrent musical parts is the degree to which the parts are
played in synchrony. Rasch (1978) found that simultaneous tones with identical rise times (synchronous) tend to fuse together into one tone whereas a
difference of only 10 ms in the rise times of two instruments (quasi-simultaneous) can facilitate perceptual distinction between parts. He claimed
that different rise times may be equivalent to the effect perceived with different onset times. In a related study, Rasch (1979) claimed that most ensemble playing is not performed in perfect synchrony and that the degree
of asynchrony between instruments averages between 30 and 50 ms. In the
present study, all stimuli were quasi-simultaneous in terms of rise times
and therefore assumed not to impede part distinction.
The preceding discussion suggests that selective attention to individual
musical parts should be easier when parts are played in separate pitch registers, different timbres, and with asynchronous note onsets. Accordingly,
these factors are considered in the test stimuli, as we are especially interested in examining whether unattended channel influence exists in conditions that enable part distinction.
Pitch direction and interval type, being fundamental components of
melodic perception, were chosen for the present study as variables with
which to examine interference in selective processing of melodic voices.
Intervallic identification is not the focus here, but rather the ability to determine in which direction an interval is moving in the presence of a competing interval. But more important, the interval combinations provide a
basis for studying differences in selection for melodies moving in the same
direction versus contrary motion, which is an important aspect of counterpoint.
The main point of Experiment 1 is to investigate whether under certain
conditions of separation there would still be some level of unattended musical processing. Ten participants were asked to determine whether an interval was moving up or down in pitch while a second interval was presented simultaneously. In this experiment, two quasi-simultaneous intervals
were differentiated by timbre and played together several octaves apart.

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Selective Attention in Counterpoint

The five independent variables were pitch direction for the attended voice
(up versus down), interval type for the attended voice (major second versus
perfect fifth), pitch direction for the unattended voice, interval type for the
unattended voice, and instrument timbre (piano versus bassoon) in a withinsubjects design. The piano timbre was used for the high intervals and the
bassoon timbre for the low intervals in all conditions. Reaction time and
accuracy were measured to assess the effect of the unattended interval on
processing of the attended interval.
If selective attention is effective, in the sense of creating effective early
selection, then no variation in performance on the attended interval should
be observed as a function of pitch direction or interval type. This outcome
would suggest that the intervals were able to be heard as separate auditory
streams. However, it is predicted that some level of global perception will
be present, and to the extent that selection fails, the unattended voice should
affect processing of the attended voice for both interval types.

Experiment 1
METHOD

Participants
One group of 10 participants was assigned to eight blocks of 32 treatment conditions
that were presented in random order. Participants had a range of 3 to 12 years of music
training and were all professional, performing musicians. Eight males and two females were
tested. Ages were from 19 to 49 years old.
Design
A 2 2 2 2 2 within-subjects design was used to study whether unattended channel
information may affect performance in a selective listening task with competing melodic
intervals in various stimulus conditions. The five independent variables were attended direction (up versus down), attended interval type (perfect fifth versus major second), unattended direction, unattended interval type, and timbre (piano versus bassoon). The dependent variables were reaction time and accuracy.
Procedure
A Macintosh Power PC was used to run a Superlab program with 16 sound stimuli
recorded on an Ensoniq TS10 synthesizer that were played into the computer with sound
editing software. Each stimulus consisted of two intervals played simultaneously, with the
higher voice on piano and the lower voice in a bassoon-like timbre. Stimuli ranged in separation from one and a half to three octaves. Both timbres were sampled waveforms of real
instruments. The onset tones of all interval pairs were quantized so that they began at the
same time, but the difference in rise times caused the bassoon timbre to peak 13 ms later
than the piano, which is more indicative of real musical performance than perfect synchronous onset (Rasch, 1978). Release times varied within 25 ms as a function of performance.
Sounds were recorded monophonically, and both ears received the same signal through

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Lynn L. Davison & William P. Banks

headphones. The levels of the two timbres were electronically equalized and then adjusted
manually so that they sounded equal in volume.
Stimuli included a perfect fifth or major second moving up or down, against a perfect fifth
or major second moving up or down, in upper and lower voices (see Figure 1). It should be
noted that the vertical intervals created between the two onset and offset notes of the interval
pairs were not systematically varied in the study, but categorized in terms of consonant or
dissonant combinations to address the possibility of an effect. Each stimulus contained two
vertical intervals. Consonant conditions included 12 stimuli with perfect fourths or fifths and
4 stimuli with one perfect fourth or fifth and one minor third, whereas dissonant combinations
included 16 stimuli with one perfect fourth or fifth and one major second or minor seventh. It
should be noted that the small number of stimuli that contained the minor thirds were included in the consonance category, as they are closer to consonance than dissonance, but may
actually be described more accurately as imperfect consonance.
All tones belonged to the C-major scale and the intervals were played legato. The first
tone lasted 500 ms, and the second tone was allowed to gradually decay for 2 s. The first
tone was immediately followed by the second with no silence in between. In some trials, the
decay of the second tone was cut short by the participants response, which triggered the
next interval presentation.
Half the participants were asked to listen to the piano voice and determine whether it
was moving up or down, while ignoring the bassoon, whereas the other half listened to the
bassoon voice first while ignoring the piano. Each group was then instructed to switch their
attention to the unattended timbre for the last half of the trials. Sixteen interval combinations were presented eight times each in 128 trials for each timbre, totaling 256 trials.
Participants indicated their responses by pressing u (up) or d (down), with each response
cueing up the next trial. A 9-s time limit was set for each. All errors were tabulated for each
condition, but reaction times were tabulated only for trials answered correctly.

Fig. 1. All test stimuli used in Experiment 1. Sixteen pairs of two-note melodies comprising
ascending and descending major second and perfect fifth intervals in separate pitch registers.

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Selective Attention in Counterpoint


RESULTS

The data were analyzed in a five-variable analysis of variance (ANOVA),


with variables of attended direction (up versus down), unattended direction (up versus down), attended interval type (perfect fifth versus major
second), unattended interval type (perfect fifth versus major second), and
timbre (piano versus bassoon). Main effects and interactions not explicitly
described were not significant (p > .05).
Results of an ANOVA of reaction time showed evidence of a three-way
interaction between attended direction, unattended direction, and attended
interval type, F(1,9) = 8.19, p = .019, MSE = 81519.50. A follow-up
ANOVA showed an interaction between attended and unattended intervals for major seconds, F(1,9) = 24.82, p < .001, MSE = 81519.50, but not
perfect fifths. A plot of mean reaction times for the major seconds showing
attended versus unattended direction (see Figure 2) revealed a crossover
pattern such that the attended up condition was processed faster when
the unattended interval was up (1712 ms) than when it was down, (1821
ms) and the attended down condition was processed faster when the unattended interval was down (1548 ms) than when it was up (1664 ms). In
other words, listeners took longer to respond when melodies were moving in
contrary motion rather than in the same direction for major seconds.
A main effect of attended direction was also observed for major seconds
F(1,9) = 50.56, p < .001, MSE = 81519.50. Means showed that reaction

1850

Reaction Time (ms)

1800
1750
1700
1650
1600
1550
1500

Unat down

1450

Unat up

1400
Up

Down

Attended Direction
Fig. 2. Reaction time to judge melodic direction of attended interval for major seconds
(excluding unattended fifths) in Experiment 1. Reaction time is faster when both attended
and unattended intervals are moving in the same direction than when they are in contrary
motion.

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10

Lynn L. Davison & William P. Banks

time was faster when the attended interval moved down (1606 ms) than
when it moved up (1766 ms) regardless of the direction of the unattended
interval.
In contrast to the results for major seconds, there was no significant
interaction between attended and unattended intervals for perfect fifths (p
> .05). The pattern of mean reaction times, however, shows that processing
took the least amount of time when the attended voice moved down and
the unattended voice moved up (1564 ms), followed by when both voices
moved up (1581 ms), then when the attended voice moved up and the
unattended voice moved down (1620 ms), and finally when both voices
moved down (1744 ms), which took longest (see Figure 3).
There were significant two-way interactions between attended interval
type and attended direction, F(1,9) = 22.01, p < .001, MSE = 41688.51,
and between attended interval type and unattended direction, F(1,9) = 6.48,
p = .031, MSE = 39234.42.
Timbre was not significant (p > .05). Mean reaction times were similar
for piano (1653 ms) and bassoon (1660 ms).
In addition, mean reaction times were tabulated for the vertical intervals
created between interval pairs. Results were similar for consonant (1683
ms) versus dissonant (1657 ms) combinations.
A within-subjects ANOVA measuring accuracy showed no significant
effects (p > .05). According to Figure 4, the pattern of means showed a

1800

Reaction Time (ms)

1750
1700
1650
1600
Unat down
Unat up

1550
1500
Down

Up

Attended Direction
Fig. 3. Reaction time to judge melodic direction of attended interval for perfect fifths (excluding unattended seconds) in Experiment 1. Differences were not significant.

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11

Selective Attention in Counterpoint

Accuracy Percentage

100

90

80

70
Unat down
Unat up

60

50
Down

Up

Attended Direction
Fig. 4. Accuracy rate to judge melodic direction of attended interval for major seconds and
perfect fifth intervals (averaged across unattended seconds and fifths) in Experiment 1.
Differences were not significant.

slightly higher accuracy rate when both the attended and unattended intervals moved down (99%), and when the attended interval moved down
while the unattended interval moved up (98%), compared with when both
intervals moved up (97%), and when the attended interval moved up while
the unattended interval moved down (96%). Mean accuracy rates were
similar for piano (98%) and bassoon (97%).
DISCUSSION

These results support an effect of stimulus competition on listeners ability to determine pitch contour when major second intervals were used in
the attended voice. The perfect fifth intervals did not incur significant performance differences. Because the effect was observed in small interval conditions only, we could conclude that the major second interval may be more
vulnerable to input from the unattended information than the perfect fifth.
Given that reaction time was affected and not accuracy, it could be that the
listener hesitated because traditional musical expectancies were not met when
the major second intervals were presented in comparison to the consonant
fifths. It is known that a perfect fifth is more harmonically stable than a major
second (Krumhansl, 1990). Thus, the two tones comprising a perfect fifth
could provide an interval more resistant to interference than the major second.
The hierarchy of tonal organization is such that the tonic, fifth, and third are
most stable, in that the listener can predict harmonic resolution. Although

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12

Lynn L. Davison & William P. Banks

listeners required more time to process the major seconds than the perfect
fifths, they were in fact able to distinguish the high and low intervals as separate auditory streams, as reflected in the high degree of accuracy.
The intervals in the first experiment were separated by both pitch register and timbre, both of which are known to facilitate discrimination
(Deutsch, 1982; Dowling, 1973; Krumhansl, 1990). Therefore, any interference observed under these conditions would indicate a fairly robust effect. In Experiment 2, the same intervals (major seconds and perfect fifths)
were transposed into a common octave. With intervals in the same register,
only timbral differences and a small degree of asynchrony due to the difference in rise times serve to distinguish the two melodic sequences, and so
discrimination should be more difficult than in Experiment 1. Moreover,
global stimulus properties are expected to be more prominent in Experiment 2
than in Experiment 1, as merging the intervals into a common pitch register
may increase the relatedness between attended and unattended voices.
One factor underlying musical relatedness is the perceptual relation between
melodic and harmonic groupings, which are inherently formed within the stimulus configuration of concurrent voices. Perception of one or the other may be
emphasized depending upon the distance between voices, and the relative balance between the two may be altered accordingly. Perception of the horizontal
dimension, which is analogous to the melodic aspect, will become stronger
with the degree of distance between the two melodies, whereas the vertical
dimension, which is analogous to the harmonic component, will systematically weaken (Bregman, 1990). Thus, perception of the harmonic dimension
should become more prominent in Experiment 2 than in Experiment 1, and a
greater degree of perceptual fusion between voices is likely to occur. There is
also a greater likelihood that the vertical intervals formed by the interval pairs
could have an effect as compared with the first experiment.
If the relatedness between voices is increased as a function of proximity,
then listeners should have difficulty determining which line to follow, and
accuracy rates should be lower than they were in Experiment 1. We might also
expect an influence on processing the perfect fifth interval that was not seen in
Experiment 1, as global processing would most likely affect melodic perception of both interval types. Furthermore, there may be differences with melodies that are moving in the same direction versus contrary motion.

Experiment 2
METHOD

Participants
One group of 10 participants was assigned to eight blocks of 32 treatment conditions
that were presented in random order as in Experiment 1. Participants had a range of be-

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Selective Attention in Counterpoint

13

tween 3 and 15 years of music training and were all professional, performing musicians. Six
males and four females were tested. Participants were from 23 to 46 years old.
Design
A 2 x 2 x 2 x 2 x 2 within-subjects design was used with the same independent variables
as in Experiment 1, which included attended pitch direction (up versus down), attended
interval type (major second versus perfect fifth), unattended direction, unattended interval
type, and timbre (piano versus bassoon). The dependent variables were reaction time and
accuracy.
Procedure
The same procedure was used in Experiment 2 as in Experiment 1, except that the intervals were placed in the same pitch register rather than separated into high- and low-frequency ranges. Part-crossing took place in 6 of the 16 interval combinations, but two notes
played at the same time were never overlapping in pitch. It should be noted, however, that
part-crossing always occurred with interval pairs that were moving in contrary motion.
Also, an interstimulus interval of 500 ms was added to the beginning of the next trial so that
before each response there would be a brief preparation period. The rest interval was triggered by the participants response to the previous trial and was deducted from reaction
time scores, so that the results could be compared with those of Experiment 1. The degree
of asynchrony for onset notes was held constant between the two experiments. Participants
were presented with interval pairs and asked to listen to the piano or bassoon voice to
determine whether the attended voice was moving up or down. Once again, reaction times
for correct trials and errors were tabulated for each condition.
RESULTS AND DISCUSSION

As in Experiment 1, the data were analyzed in a five-variable ANOVA,


with variables of attended direction (up versus down), unattended direction (up versus down), attended interval type (perfect fifth versus major
second), unattended interval type (perfect fifth versus major second), and
timbre (piano versus bassoon). Main effects and interactions not explicitly
described were not significant (p > .05).
Results from an ANOVA of reaction time showed an overall two-way
interaction between attended and unattended pitch direction, F(1,9) = 7.31,
p = .043, MSE = 124897.70. A follow-up ANOVA that measured perfect
fifths versus major seconds showed no significant interaction for attended
x unattended direction (p > .05) for either interval type.
Some support for the facilitation of selective attention in congruent versus incongruent conditions was observed. Mean performance across all
conditions showed a crossover interaction (see Figure 5), with the best
performance having been observed when the attended and unattended intervals both moved down (2119 ms). However, results were the same for
conditions in which both intervals moved up (2191 ms) and conditions in
which the attended interval moved up while the unattended interval moved
down (2191 ms). The longest reaction times were observed when the attended interval moved down while the unattended voice moved up (2277
ms).

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Lynn L. Davison & William P. Banks


2300

Reaction Time (ms)

2250
2200
2150
2100
Unat down

2050

Unat up

2000
Down

Up

Attended Direction
Fig. 5. Reaction time to judge melodic direction of attended interval for major seconds and
perfect fifth intervals (averaged across unattended seconds and fifths) in Experiment 2.
Reaction time is faster when both intervals are moving in the same direction than when they
are in contrary motion.

Means showed that crossing intervals (2252 ms) took longer to process
than noncrossing intervals (2138 ms). Interval pairs moving in contrary
motion that actually crossed took longer to process (2252 ms) than did
noncrossing incongruent intervals (2123 ms). There was little difference in
reaction time between noncrossing incongruent conditions (2123 ms) and
conditions in which intervals moved in the same direction (2152 ms). It
should be noted that of the 32 interval pairs, 12 crossed and 20 did not,
with 16 of the latter being congruent and 4 pairs moving in contrary motion.
There was a highly significant main effect of unattended interval type,
F(1,9) = 86.20, p < .001, MSE = 12338.94, and also an effect of unattended direction, F(1,9)=15.53, p = .011, MSE = 33638.89 on reaction
time for the attended interval.
Timbre was not significant (p > .05). Mean reaction times were similar
for piano (2685 ms) and bassoon (2701 ms).
Mean reaction times for vertical interval combinations were similar, with
performance for consonant intervals at 2695 ms and dissonant intervals at
2656 ms. The vertical intervals were categorized in the same manner as the
stimuli in Experiment 1.
Results from an ANOVA of accuracy showed a highly reliable two-way
interaction between attended and unattended direction, F(1,9) = 147.53, p

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15

Selective Attention in Counterpoint

< .001, MSE = 433.11. The overall pattern was the same for accuracy as
for reaction time. Accuracy rates (see Figure 6) were highest when both
intervals moved down (96%), followed by congruent up conditions
(89%). The second lowest scores were observed in conditions in which the
attended voice moved up and the unattended voice moved down (69%),
whereas the most errors occurred when the attended voice moved down
and the unattended voice moved up (59%).
Selective attention was easier when the intervals moved in the same direction rather than in contrary motion. Congruent conditions showed a
mean accuracy rate of 92% in contrast to the 64% accuracy rate observed
in combined incongruent conditions, some of which included part-crossing.
Mean accuracy rates were 62% for crossing parts and 88% for
noncrossing parts (see Figure 7). Incongruent interval pairs that crossed
produced the lowest accuracy rate (62%), followed by noncrossing incongruent intervals (70%), with melodies moving in the same direction showing the highest accuracy rate (92%).
Other significant interactions included a two-way interaction between
attended interval type and attended direction, F(1,9) = 12.98, p < .006,
MSE = 438.01; a three-way interaction between attended direction, unat-

Accuracy Percentage

100

90

80

70

Unat down
Unat up

60

50
Down

Up

Attended Direction
Fig. 6. Accuracy rate to judge melodic direction of attended interval for major seconds and
perfect fifth intervals (averaged across unattended seconds and fifths) in Experiment 2.
Accuracy rate is higher when both intervals are moving in the same direction than when
they are in contrary motion.

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16

Lynn L. Davison & William P. Banks

Accuracy Percentage

100

90

80

70

60

50
Crossing

Non-crossing

Part-crossing
Fig. 7. Accuracy rates for crossing versus noncrossing interval pairs in Experiment 2.

tended direction, and unattended interval type, F(1,9) = 12.16, p = .007,


MSE = 197.71; and a four-way interaction between attended direction,
unattended direction, attended interval type, and unattended interval type,
F(1,9) = 38.45, p < .001, MSE = 51.89. Main effects were significant for
unattended direction, F(1,9) = 8.42, p = .018, MSE = 779.76, and unattended interval type, F(1,9) = 8.08, p = .019, MSE = 314.63.
Timbre had a significant effect on performance accuracy, F(1,9) = 5.56,
p = .043, MSE = 946.29. Means showed that the identification of pitch
direction was more accurate when the attended voice was in a bassoon
(82%) rather than a piano timbre (74%). In addition, a significant threeway interaction was observed for instrument x attended direction x unattended direction, F(1,9) = 5.54, p = .043, MSE = 588.65, as well as significant two-way interactions for instrument x attended direction, F(1,9) =
6.96, p = .027, MSE = 674.89, and instrument x unattended direction,
F(1,9) = 6.11, p = .035, MSE = 216.90.
Mean accuracy rates for vertical interval combinations were almost the
same, with consonant intervals being processed at a mean accuracy rate of
76% and dissonant intervals at 77%.
The pattern of means offers strong evidence that unattended melodic
patterns can affect processing of attended ones. In Experiment 2, interference was observed for both accuracy and reaction time, whereas in Experiment 1, an effect was seen for reaction time but not accuracy. A compari-

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Selective Attention in Counterpoint

17

son of the two experiments for both errors and reaction times suggests that
placing the intervals in a common pitch register made the task more difficult. Overall mean accuracy rates showed a 20% decrease from the first
experiment to the second, with 98% for Experiment 1 and 78% for Experiment 2. A comparison of reaction times showed a mean difference of
536 ms between Experiment 1 (1657 ms) and Experiment 2 (2193 ms).
However, it is possible that having no interstimulus interval between the
response and the next trial could have caused listeners to feel rushed in
Experiment 1, which may have contributed to the difference in reaction
time.
The bassoon timbre advantage observed in Experiment 2 with accuracy
may be attributable to some degree of backward masking of the piano
voice as a result of the 13-ms difference in rise times (Rasch, 1978), which
could be less prominent in conditions of interval separation.

General Discussion
These findings show that unattended musical parts of a composition
may strongly affect processing of an attended voice and that the degree of
interference may vary according to compositional factors that determine
how musical attributes are interrelated. In both experiments, there was
influence of the unattended interval on the attended one, and this was increased in the second experiment in which pitch registers were overlapping. Given that early selection assumes that no processing occurs with
unattended stimuli, it could not have been possible in conditions that showed
an effect of the unattended voice on processing of the attended voice. Alternatively, late selection implies that some processing of unattended information occurred, but does not distinguish the nature or degree of such processing. It is possible that conditions of relatedness between competing voices
may serve to mediate unattended voice processing, which could be due to
the emergence of global stimulus properties.
It has been argued that when events are perceptually independent, selective attention is facilitated, whereas in global perception, a set of elements
is perceived as a unit and selection of individual elements may be impaired
(Banks & Prinzmetal, 1979; Bonnel & Prinzmetal, 1998; Prinzmetal &
Banks, 1977). The extremely high accuracy rates reported in Experiment 1
indicated that listeners could perceive the two melodies independently,
whereas in Experiment 2, the sharp decline in accuracy rates showed that
listeners could not identify parts in the same pitch register, suggesting they
probably heard a single auditory stream. Presumably, a group of sounds
that are grouped together as an auditory stream would be perceived as a
global entity.

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18

Lynn L. Davison & William P. Banks

It also appears that when voices crossed, the melodies became even more
difficult to distinguish than when voices moving in contrary motion did
not cross, which is important in the context of musical counterpoint. In a
series of studies that examined the structure of counterpoint, Huron (1991)
found that J. S. Bach avoided part-crossing, especially when three or more
voices were being played simultaneously, suggesting that overlapping melodies may be difficult to attend to even when they are played in different
timbres and that counterpoint voices written in separate pitch registers may
facilitate melodic independence.
The difficulty in attending to individual voices moving in contrary motion may be understood in the context of the Gestalt principle of common
fate. When two concurrent voices are moving in the same direction, the
stimulus as a whole is either moving up or down, in which case the task of
determining the direction of the attended voices should be easier because
the melodies are moving congruently. In contrast, when voices are heard in
contrary motion, an up or down judgment for a selected voice should be
more difficult because the listener is subjected to conflicting information. It
is important to note that if the voices are heard independently, then congruence of movement should not have any effect. For the most part however, attentional performance was slower and less accurate when voices
were moving in contrary motion rather than in the same direction, suggesting some degree of global perception.
Whether concurrent musical voices are perceived independently or as a
coordinated musical texture may be affected by the relative prominence of
melodic and harmonic dimensions. As discussed previously, the vertical
dimension becomes more prominent with proximity, in that individual tones
from concurrent melodies are more likely to be perceived as a harmonic
grouping when they are close together rather than separated in auditory
space (Bregman, 1990). Conversely, the horizontal dimension (melody) may
be perceptually dominant over the harmonic structure as a result of melodies being in separate registers, thereby establishing perceptual independence between voices.
The inherent compositional structure of counterpoint appears to have
dual implications for selective attention ability, in that individual voices
may be perceived as both independent and integral. So rather than try to
classify a set of polyphonic voices as being absolutely integral or independent, it may be more reasonable to try and define the conditions under
which competing voices may be perceived separately, or as an integral
musical texture. Moreover, because individual parts of a composition are
written to be perceived as a cohesive whole, there should exist some degree
of global perception regardless of how distinguishable individual musical
motifs may be to the listener. Therefore, attentional interference from competing musical attributes in the context of integrality may be intended to

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Selective Attention in Counterpoint

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some degree by the composer as part of the perceptual experience. In polyphonic composition, the issue of global perception becomes even more complex, as the ability to maintain melodic independence becomes more difficult with an increased number of voices (Huron, 1989).
There are certain factors to consider when attempting to generalize the
findings of the present study to normal listening. First, listeners were instructed to follow one voice and ignore the other, thus placing constraints
on voluntary processes that would otherwise not exist in normal listening.
Second, a higher degree of asynchrony in note onsets would be expected
between performing acoustic instruments as compared with synthesized
recorded instruments, although even a slight deviation from synchrony may
serve to facilitate distinction between parts (Rasch, 1979). The interval
pairs in the present study were asynchronous in that they consisted of timbres with different rise times, and so it is unlikely that the interference
observed in this study was due to synchrony of onset. And further, it could
not explain differences between experiments, as the timing of onset for all
stimuli was held constant between experiments. And finally, the melodies
presented in real music are typically much longer than the two-note intervals presented here, and as such, may affect the creation of musical expectancies that result in each melodic fragment priming the next.
In conclusion, these results suggest an attentional basis for rules of composition seen in counterpoint, which serves to promote a masterful balance
between individual part distinction and the perception of concurrent voices
as a global texture based on interrelations between musical attributes.

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