Should certain negative results cause music theory to abandon its dependence on perception studies for the corroboration of its key principles? Recent experiments in music perception that have failed to confirm certain important principles of music theory are reviewed from the perspective of musical communities. A musical community is defined to be those listeners for whom a given musical perception is real and useful. It is argued that (1) the significance of experimental results should be interpreted not only according to traditional criteria of statistical significance but also according to the status of relevant musical communities; (2) a perceptual object that is real for only a small minority of listeners may yet be deemed significant if that minority performs some crucial activity in the musical culture; (3) important perceptual objects can be explicitly taught by advanced musical communities; (4) although this perspective calls into question the objectivity of theoretical principles, music theory must continue to incorporate the results of experiments in music perception.
In recent years, music theorists and cognitive psychologists have agreed that hierarchical organizations are an effective means of describing structural and perceptual aspects of music. This article proposes that any hierarchical theory should be limited because the amount of information humans are able to take in and process is limited, as is well known in the cognitive field. When music is perceived according to Gestalt principles, the limit of organization will be three or four musical events on a level. When music perception is aided by cultural experience, this number of events may be exceeded by grouping the events into processing units called musical constituents. In this way, the hierarchical theory accounts for both the abstract and cultural aspects of musical experience. The notion of structural limits explains why the hierarchical model has been so persuasive and, by the use of three examples, shows how it can be a useful perspective for musical analysis.