Markus Neuwirth

Revisiting Hypermetrical Ambiguity: Real-time Perception and Expectancy Formation

It is a hallmark of music from the ‘classical style’ to engender conflicting interpretations of hypermetrical patterns. The resulting ambiguity (or vagueness) may apply to both the first hypermetrical phase in which a metrical pattern is established (and recognized by the listener) and the subsequent phase in which an extracted pattern is extrapolated (London 2004). Being ‘a state of the mind’ (Meyer 1956), the ‘synchronic ambiguity’ (Temperley 2001) of a given passage may resolve once further information is provided that tips the balance into one direction or the other, turning, in Meyer’s words, two (or more) ‘hypothetical embodied meanings’ into one ‘evident meaning’. At least three strategies of dealing with hypermetrical ambiguity have been adopted in the analytical practice: (1) Prioritizing certain factors (or rules) over others, based on a parametric hierarchy; (2) subdividing the musical texture into two streams, one forming the ‘true’ meter, the other a ‘shadow meter’ (Samarotto 1999); and (3) assuming a continuous hypermetric transition from one pattern to another (Temperley 2008).
In my talk, I will examine a number of sonatas from Haydn’s oeuvre that contain notable instances of hypermetrical ambiguity. In so doing, I will explicitly adopt a cognitive perspective based on Lerdahl and Jackendoff’s (1983) preference-rule approach as well as Lewin’s (1986) phenomenological theory. To be sure, theories of meter, more than any other theories, are informed by psychological principles and experimental evidence. Nevertheless, when addressing the case of hypermetric ambiguity, theorists often tend to be oblivious to the cognitive constraints resulting from processing metrical information in real-time. My talk thus seeks to provide a corrective to this practice, e.g. by being sensitive to two different kinds of metrical preference rules, real-time rules and post-hoc rules (the latter being applicable only after a certain stretch of music has been heard, such as ‘parallelism’).