We combine perceptual research and acoustic analysis to probe the messy, pluralistic world of musical semantics, focusing on sound mass music. Composers and scholars describe sound mass with many semantic associations. We designed an experiment to evaluate to what extent these associations are experienced by other listeners. Thirty-eight participants heard 40 excerpts of sound mass music and related contemporary genres and rated them along batteries of semantic scales. Participants also described their rating strategies for some categories. A combination of qualitative stimulus analyses, Cronbach’s alpha tests, and principal component analyses suggest that cross-domain mappings between semantic categories and musical properties are statistically coherent between participants, implying non-arbitrary relations. Some aspects of participants’ descriptions of their rating strategies appear to be reflected in their numerical ratings. We sought quantitative bases for these associations in the acoustic signals. After attempts to correlate semantic ratings with classical audio descriptors failed, we pursued a neuromimetic representation called spectrotemporal modulations (STMs), which explains much more of the variance in semantic ratings. This result suggests that semantic interpretations of music may involve qualities or attributes that are objectively present in the music, since computer simulation can use sound signals to partially reconstruct human semantic ratings.
Sound mass has been an influential trend in music since the 1950’s and yet many questions about its perception remain unanswered. Approaching sound mass from the perspective of auditory scene analysis, we define it as a type of auditory grouping that retains an impression of multiplicity even as it is perceived as a perceptual unit. Sound mass requires all markers of the individual identities of sounds to be deemphasized to prevent them from splitting off into separate streams. Seeking to determine how consistent listeners are in their perception of sound mass, and whether it is possible to determine sound parameters and threshold values that predict sound mass perception, we conducted two perceptual studies on Ligeti’s Continuum . This piece consists of an extremely rapid, steady stream of eighth-note dyads with no tempo changes. We addressed the claim by Ligeti and others that the fusion into a continuous texture or sound mass occurs at ca. 20 attacks/s, hypothesizing that other factors such as pitch organization, emergent rhythm, timbre, and register would affect this value. A variety of factors were found to affect sound mass perception, suggesting that the threshold value is not absolute but varies according to principles of auditory scene analysis.