Tool #3.1: Octave Displacement Follow-Up Post

Tool #3 covered a simple yet powerful tool to create motivic development: octave displacement.  It was suggested in one of the comments that I continue the discussion about this technique by delving into the psychoacoustic realm.  While I haven’t studied psychoacoustics in earnest (no classes or reading of full articles/books), I found an interesting part of a book online about the use of octave displacement and how we recognize (or don’t) a melody when its intervals are altered by octave displacement.  The book is called The Psychology of Music and was written by Diana Deutsch and published in 1999 by Gulf Professional Publishing.  I read the section entitled “Interval Class” pages 356-8.  The link to the book is here.

In this passage (pgs. 356-8) in The Psychology of Music, Deutsch gives examples of how octave displacement can confuse the listener into not recognizing material as recurring.  In one example she gives, the tune Yankee Doodle was given to three groups of individuals.  One group had the tune intact in 3 octaves, the second had the tune mixed between the three octaves (I think this means, perhaps eg. C4-C3-D5-E3, or something like that, if one uses Yankee Doodle in the key of C), and the third group had only the rhythm; their tune was a series of unpitched “clicks”.  The results found that the first group recognized the popular children’s tune with ease, but the second group had just as much trouble recognizing the tune as the third group.

This shows that octave displacement can render old material “new”.  If the listener can’t identify a motive in octave displacement any better than the motive in only rhythmical terms, then material put through octave displacement is a proven way of taking old material and making it new again.  This of course has many caveats, as pointed out by Deutsch.  If the listener expects to hear motivic development, knows the background to a piece, or has seen the score, then the circumstances have changed–one is looking for techniques (such as octave displacement) that create new material out of old.

Deutsch also discusses octave displacement with figures as simple as a C Major hexachord, in which musically trained subjects were given the first 6 notes of the C Major scale in a permutation.  Those who were given permutations that remained within the scope of one octave were much more successful at notating the pattern in dictation than those who were given the permutation with pitches that spanned more than an octave.

This has many ramifications.  The idea of 12-tone music creating interrelationships between pitches despite huge leaps (as is often the case in that genre) is, as said by Deutsch, still possible “in principle, but only if the listener is very familiar with the material, or if its structure is such as to give rise to strong expectations.” (p.358).  On a more general musical scale, it shows that octave displacement works as a way to create new material that is difficult to associate with its originating material, but I don’t think that it means it is worthless for building interconnectivity between ideas.  With expectations that material will be developed, by careful aural and score scrutiny, or by careful construction of a piece by the composer, I feel that listeners can indeed hear the connection between orgininal material and that which is displaced in different octaves.

There’s my spiel, and I highly recommend that section of the book (I haven’t read the rest).



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