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gestalt principles and music

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kevin McDonald

on 30 January 2014

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Transcript of gestalt principles and music

Gestalt Theory
the term gestalt means - a unified whole
Figure ground
Basic Principles of Perception
A tendency to perceive a set of individual elements as a single recognizable whole, rather than multiple elements
Figure Ground
A tendency to separate figures from their backgrounds based variables such as contrast, color, texture or size
In this image, the figure and ground relationships change as the eye perceives the the form of a shade or the silhouette of a face.
Figure Ground
This image uses complex figure/ground relationships which change upon perceiving leaves, water and tree trunk.
elements that are close to each other are perceived to be more related than those placed farther apart
The nine squares above are placed without proximity. They are perceived as separate shapes.
When the squares are given close proximity, unity occurs. While they continue to be separate shapes, they are now perceived as one group.
Elements which share visual characteristics such as shape, size, color, texture, value or orientation will be seen as belonging together
Our eyes will categorize the triangles into two groups; yellow ones and outlined ones
The element that doesn't share the same color as the rest of the elements is seen vividly because it is not similar
the viewer's eye will naturally follow a line or curve.
note - The smooth flowing crossbar of the "H" leads the eye directly to the maple leaf.
by James Tenney
and Larry Polansky
Temporal Gestalt Perception
in Music
(cc) image by rocketboom on Flickr
for historians - time is a hierarchically ordered network of moments, incidents, episodes, periods, epochs, eras, etc
for theoretical physicists - time is an undifferentiated "continuum" .
Linear vs Cyclical
Time vs Music
hierarchical levels of time-span are internally cohesive and externally segregated from comparable time-spans immediately preceding and following it
Temporal Gestalt
these time-spans - and the events/ processes which define them are called....
Levels of TG
(cc) image by rocketboom on Flickr
TG which is not temporally divisible, in perception, into smaller TG's
TG at the next higher level... consisting of a succession of two or more elements
TG consisting of two or more clangs
... Segment, section, Composition etc
elements that are CLOSER will tend to form clangs // relatively
greater separations
in time will produce segregation,

will tend to form clangs // while
relative dissimilarity
will produce segregation
Cohesion & Segregation
Two Basic Approaches:

each stream is clearly segregated by distinct musical/ sonic parameters... pitch, timbre, space, rhythm, contour, envelope, etc
Tonal examples are: canons, fugue
All sound content is mixed together to create a sense of grouping, sound mass and fusion, by...

spectral similarity
pitch proximity
temporal proximity
common fate
Atmospheres-Gyorgy Ligeti (1961)
Integration example
Micropolyphony – moving clusters
“dense dynamic harmonies create complex beatings and relations.“
harmonies do not change suddenly but rather merge into one another. interval combinations gradually get blurred.... a new interval combination begins taking shape.
Paul Dolden - Below the Walls of Jericho (1988--89)
400 superimposed tracks
48 notes per octave and 75 tracks of percussion
Dense microtonal cluster
Edgard Varese - Ionisation (1929–1931)
Segregation Examples
[Ionisation] is built on a most sensitive handling and contrast of different kinds of percussive sounds. There are those indefinite in pitch, like the bass drum, snare drum, wood blocks, and cymbals; those of relatively definite musical pitch, such as the piano and chimes; those of continually moving pitch, like the sirens and 'lion's roar.' It is an example of 'spatial construction,' building up to a great complexity of interlocking 'planes' of rhythm and timbre, and then relaxing the tension with the slowing of rhythm, the entrance of the chimes, and the enlargement of the 'silences' between sounds. There are suggestions of the characteristic sounds of modern city life.
Denis Smalley - Pentes (1974)
Main Point of the Article
A new TG at the next higher level will be initiated in perception whenever a TG occurs whose disjunction (with respect to the previous TG at the same hierarchical level) is greater then those immediately preceding and following it
Decision Delay
serialized networks of elements
working from the bottom up (element to structure level)
working from top to bottom (structure to element level)
Structural ideas
Clang level Ideas
create sound libraries based an elementary relationships (group types)
create clangs based on parametric relationships othen then time and space. ex. timbre, amplitude, etc
Sequence Level Ideas
create streaming networks based on parametric differences between the clangs
play on perceptual differences by molding clang sequences through layering
a hierarchically ordered network of sounds, motives, phrases, passages, sections, movements, etc
Brain fills in the gaps

based on recognizable patterns

built on expectations
scales / harmony
elements arranged on a line or curve are perceived to be more related than elements not on the line or curve.
continuity provides
continuity relates to causality
gesture = causal
texture = non-causal
Figure/ground theory also applies to music…

depth of field
background vs foreground
accented vs non-accented
texture vs gesture
melody vs harmony
eliane radigue - transamorem transmortem (1973)
Grouping of this sort can be achieved with:

Tone / value




Or other physical attributes
....Music is narrative
this means that they occur in relation to the piece regardless of the cycle of time they actually exist in.
gestalt principles:
proximity and similarity
things happening at the same time
cause and effect relationships

the next level of perception is initiated when a perceived difference is greater then the difference perceived immediately before.
thank you
the brain has self-organizing tendencies.
we experience the whole before the sum of its parts
Full transcript