This study examines how long the percept of a tonal center is retained in memory following a modulation to a new key, and how harmonic context in the new key area affects recall of the original key. In Experiment 1, musically trained listeners (N = 50) were asked to rate perceived harmonic tension while listening to chord sequences that consisted of three parts: the first section established an initial key, the second section modulated to a new key, and the last section modulated back to the original key. The duration of the new key section ranged from 3 to 21 seconds. The tension slopes following the modulations indicated a gradual decay in the memory of the previous key as the length of the new key section increased. When sequences lacked cadences, traces of the initial key appeared to persist longer. In Experiment 2, musically trained listeners (N = 31) were asked to rate harmonic tension while listening to sequences with longer timescales of up to 45 s in a new key area. Additionally, responses to “closed” modulations, which returned to the original key, and “open” modulations, which departed from both the original and new keys, were compared. The combined results of Experiments 1 and 2 showed that the original key was retained in memory after 15-20 s in a new key. However, there was not enough evidence to conclude it persisted beyond 20 s.

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