Mind, Technology, and Society Talk Series

Joint with UC MERCI

David Temperley
Professor, Eastman School of Music, University of Rochester
Time/Date: 3-4:30 p.m. Monday,October 5, 2015

Chancellor’s Conference Room, KL 232

Repetition and Information Flow in Music and Language


In the first part of this talk I will report on some recent research on the use of repetition in language and music. A corpus analysis of classical melodies shows that, when a melodic pattern is repeated with an alteration, the alteration tends to lower the probability of the pattern – for example, by introducing larger intervals or chromatic notes (notes outside the scale). A corpus analysis of written English text shows a similar pattern: in coordinate noun-phrase constructions in which the first and second phrases match syntactically (e.g. “the black dog and the white cat”), the second phrase tends to have lower lexical (trigram) probabilities than the first. A further pattern is also observed in coordinate constructions in language: the tendency towards “parallelism” (syntactic matching between the first and second coordinate phrases) is much stronger for rare constructions than for common ones (the “inverse frequency effect”). (There is some evidence for this phenomenon in music as well.) I will suggest that these phenomena can be explained by Levy and Jaeger’s theory of Uniform Information Density (UID): repetition is used to smooth out the “spikes” in information created by rare events.

In the second part of the talk I will focus further on the inverse frequency effect, and suggest another factor that may be behind it besides UID. I will argue that it may facilitate sentence processing, by constraining the use of rare syntactic constructions to certain situations – essentially, situations in which they are repeated. This helps to contain the combinatorial explosion of possible analyses that must be considered in sentence processing. I will relate this to another type of rare syntactic construction, “main clause phenomena” – constructions that occur only (or predominantly) at the beginning of a main clause, such as participle preposing and NP topicalization. This, too, can be explained in processing terms: since processing the beginning of a sentence requires little combinatorial search, it is natural that a greater variety of constructions would be allowed there.

Suggested reading:

Temperley, D. 2014. “Information Flow and Repetition in Music.” Journal of Music Theory 58, 155-178. <www.theory.esm.rochester.edu/temperley/papers/temperleyjmt14.pdf>

Temperley, D., & Gildea, D. 2015. “Information Density and Syntactic Repetition.” Cognitive Science [e-publication ahead of print] <www.theory.esm.rochester.edu/temperley/papers/temperleygildea-cs15.pdf>


David Temperley is a music theorist, cognitive scientist, and composer. He received his PhD in music theory from Columbia University, followed by a post-doctoral fellowship at Ohio State University. Since 2000, he has been professor of music theory at Eastman School of Music. Temperley’s primary research area is computational modeling of music cognition; he has explored issues such as meter perception, key perception, harmonic analysis, stream segregation, and transcription. His first book, _The Cognition of Basic Musical Structures_ (MIT, 2001) won the Society for Music Theory’s Emerging Scholar Award; his second book, _Music and Probability_ (MIT, 2007) explores computational music cognition from a probabilistic perspective. Other research has focused on harmony in rock, rhythm in traditional African music, and hypermeter in common-practice music. Recent projects include a corpus study of harmony and melody in rock, and an experimental study of the emotional connotations of diatonic modes. Temperley has also worked on a variety of linguistic issues, including parsing, syntactic choice, and linguistic rhythm; he is co-inventor of the Link Grammar Parser, a widely used syntactic parser of English. Temperley’s compositions can be heard as www.theory.esm.rochester.edu/temperley/music.