Ivan Jimenez Rodriguez: Making sense of chord recognition

Colombian music cognition researcher Ivan Jimenez is currently participating in a three-year long Kone foundation funded research about chord recognition. One purpose of the research is to find out for example why some people are able to identify musical pieces just by recognizing the chord progressions behind melodies and other musical elements. He stopped for a while to tell us about the research. 

"Our current research project investigates memory for chord progressions. We have been studying the listeners’ ability to identify specific pieces of music from chords alone. We have been testing this using classical and popular music as well as jazz. Harmony and memory for familiar tunes have traditionally constituted two separate lines of research among cognitive researchers. Whereas studies on harmony have focused on listeners’ general expectations about what chord might follow another within a musical style, memory for familiar tunes has been tested to gain insights on how melodies and rhythms are mentally encoded and remembered.

Eight years ago, Dr. Kuusi was the first person to study the contribution of harmony to the identification of familiar tunes. Our current research has confirmed that pieces of music can sometimes be identified from chord progressions alone. Although this form of identification seems to occur considerably less frequently than the identification of pieces of music from melodies, this type of research is showing that listeners’ experience of harmony is not restricted to general stylistic expectations.

One of our key findings is that playing a harmonic instrument like a guitar of piano or having theoretical knowledge about chord progressions are not indispensable for the identification of piece from chords alone. This suggests that the fact that non-musicians rarely focus on chord progressions when listening to music, does not prevent them from unconsciously encoding information about the chord progression of a song in long-term memory. In fact, in our most recent experiment we have also found evidence that listeners can make associations between a chord progression and a specific piece of music without being consciously aware they are making the association. So, it is possible that such unconscious associations may be a common phenomenon and have a considerable impact in both composition and listening processes.

One of the things I find most fascinating about chord progressions is that while other aspects of music such as melody, rhythm, or lyrics tend to grab our attention more easily than harmony does, chord progressions seem to still be important for our musical experiences since most of the music we listen to everyday in Western cultures uses them. I am very interested in understanding how chord progressions affect our musical experiences and I believe our research is making some important progress in that direction.  As a music theory teacher I have always been interested in connecting the teaching of theoretical concepts to students’ listening experiences and I believe that our research facilitates those connections by improving our understanding of how harmony is experienced. In a not too distant future I would also like to increase the interest of the general public on chord progressions, which may in turn deepen their appreciation of music!