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Article

Psychology of Music
41(1) 119–130
The influences of progression © The Author(s) 2011
Reprints and permission: sagepub.
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DOI: 10.1177/0305735611422506
perception of terminal pom.sagepub.com

power chords

Jay Juchniewicz
East Carolina University, USA

Michael J. Silverman
University of Minnesota, USA

Abstract
The purpose of this study was to investigate the tonal perception and restoration of thirds within power
chords with the instruments and sounds idiosyncratic to the Western rock/pop genre. Four separate
chord sequences were performed on electric guitar in four versions; as full chord and power chord
versions as well as under both clean-tone and distortion effect versions. Undergraduate music majors
(N = 50) listened to all 16 chord progressions and rated their perception of the tonality (‘majorness’
or ‘minorness’) in the terminal chord for each sequence, utilizing a 7-point semantic differential scale
ranging from minor (1) to major (7) with a neutral indicator located in the middle (4). Participants
had completed a mean 3.82 (SD = 0.66) semesters of ear training and 28 indicated they played the
guitar. A three-way repeated measures ANOVA revealed significant differences between responses
for chord sequences (1–4), as well as a significant interaction between chord sequences, distortion
(clean versus distortion), and type of chords in the progression (whole chords versus power chords).
Further analysis of data indicated that participants tended to perceive terminal power chords as
major, especially when progressions were comprised of power chords and contained distortion.

Keywords
distortion, guitar, musical perception, power chords, tonality

The influences of progression type and distortion on the perception


of terminal power chords
A considerable amount of extant research indicates that music is a culturally-learned phenom-
enon (Farnsworth, 1969; Holleran, Jones, & Butler, 1995; Taylor, 1976; Tillmann, Bharucha, &

Corresponding author:
Jay Juchniewicz, School of Music, East Carolina University, Greenville, NC 27858, USA.
[email: juchniewiczj@ecu.edu]
120 Psychology of Music 41(1)

Bigand, 2000; Wassum, 1979). In fact, cultural knowledge has been shown to influence musi-
cal expectations (Curtis & Bharucha, 2009; Huron, 2006; Morrison, Demorest, &
Stambaugh, 2008; Wong, Roy, & Margulis, 2009) as individuals familiar with Western music
appear to develop musical expectations when listening to the melodic, harmonic, and tonal
framework of this music genre (Meyer, 1967; Sloboda, 1985), regardless of musical training
(Bigand & Poulin-Charronnat, 2006; Cuddy, 1982). Continued examination has revealed that
musical expectations are learned at an early age (Boyle & Penticoff, 1989; Costa-Giomi, 1994;
Hair, 1973; Wassum, 1979): individuals develop musical expectations for the melodic, har-
monic, and tonal content by the age of 7 (Krumhansl & Keil, 1982; Trainor & Trehub, 1994).
Furthermore, researchers have postulated that these expectancies for future musical events
may result from the unfolding musical pattern that the listener receives (Huron, 2006; Jones,
1981, 1982; Radocy & Boyle, 2003). Thus, based from data cited in the aforementioned
studies, it seems axiomatic to state that listeners develop musical expectations based upon
previous musical information.
As a listener’s expectations for future musical events arise from the learned associations
between musical events (Bharucha & Stoeckig, 1986, 1987; Curtis & Bharucha, 2009), a
number of researchers have attempted to examine the formation of expectancies for harmonic
and tonal content. Specifically, listeners have shown preferences for individual tones and melo-
dies that utilize strong scale and chord tones within their structure (Gagnon, Hebert, & Peretz,
1995; Krumhansl & Shepard, 1979; Taylor, 1976). Subsequently, individuals tend to rely upon
harmonic information when perceiving individual pitches and melodies, and show preference
to pitches and melodies that follow harmonic guidelines (Holleran, Jones, & Butler, 1995).
Within chord progressions, listeners also tend to prefer specific chords that provide stability to
the overall harmonic structure of a chord progression (Krumhansl, Bharucha, & Kessler,
1982), chords that aid in developing a sense of key (Krumhansl & Kessler, 1982; Schmuckler &
Boltz, 1994), and chords that are ‘acceptable’ in chord progressions considered standard in
the Western musical tradition (Steedman, 1984). Furthermore, when provided with two
sequential chords that are harmonically related or unrelated, listeners are able to process
related chords at a faster rate than unrelated chords. These results suggest that the first chord
can create a harmonic expectation for the second chord (Bharucha & Stoeckig, 1986, 1987).
Because of the expectations that an individual develops while listening to music, several
researchers have further examined if listeners can perceive sounds even when they are not
physically occurring. Commonly referred to as restoration, this phenomenon involves the
process in which auditory signals are perceived due to the information heard before and after
the perceived sound (Warren, 1984; Warren, Wrightson, & Puretz, 1988). For example,
Sasaki (1980) found that when notes of a familiar melody were deliberately replaced by loud
noise, listeners still perceived the tones as sounding; these musical tones were heard as a
complete melody with added noise. In a related study, DeWitt and Samuel (1990) also
revealed that listeners perceived (a) tones of a melody as sounding when replaced by noise,
and (b) pitches within scales and chords as sounding when either removed or replaced by
noise. For all participants, the amount of melodic and/or harmonic information provided
created a sense of expectation that was directly related to the extent of restoration of sounds
perceived by the listener.
While the aforementioned researchers have focused on the musical expectations created by
the listeners, the majority of these investigators have examined the classical music genre.
However, few researchers have specifically examined aspects of musical expectation within
popular music. The emergence of popular music, most notably rock, metal, and pop music, has
Juchniewicz and Silverman 121

created a new set of compositional practices (Berger, 1999; Walser, 1993). While several
researchers and theorists have criticized the simplistic nature of these compositional structures
(Bobbitt, 1976; Shepherd, 1993; Winkler, 1978), other authors have posited that changes to
the harmonic and tonal structures within this genre of music have led to the unique sound of
rock/pop music (McDonald, 2000; Moore, 1995; Temperley, 2007; Temperley & de Clercq,
2010). Specifically, Temperley (2007) proposed that rock/pop compositions are based upon
blues structure and harmony rather than traditional classical structure and harmony. An
example of the blues element can be found with the inclusion of the ‘flat seventh’ utilized in
rock music, in which the use of the flat seventh interval (instead of the traditional leading tone
found in classical music) has led to changes in traditional chord progressions and cadences
(Moore, 1995).
Another compositional technique idiosyncratic to the rock/pop genre is the development of
the ‘power chord’ (also referred to as a 5th chord). A power chord is a chord without a sounding
third, thus producing an open fifth interval. Musicians frequently utilize these chords on the
guitar in rock/pop music. Because of the increased timbral complexity of the instrumentation
typically found in rock/pop ensembles, many guitarists have simplified their chordal sonorities
by removing the third of the major/minor chord (McDonald, 2000). Thus, the power chord is
neither major nor minor, in which the absence or flexibility of harmony created by these chord
progressions can leave the listener with a certain sense of ambiguity. Additionally, many
guitarists utilizing power chords also add distortion to their sound, which can create a ‘thicker’
and more complex overall tone (Walser, 1993).
At present, there is limited research concerning the perception of power chords. One
researcher (Pittenger, 2002) asked participants to listen to perfect 5th intervals (i.e., power
chords) followed by either a major or minor chord and indicate which of the two completed
chords was more similar to the power chord. Results indicated that participants perceived the
power chords as more similar to major chords, suggesting that listeners have a propensity to
perceive chords without a third as more major than minor. While these findings are important,
it would seem that grouping a power chord with a completed chord does not necessarily account
for the musical expectations that may be created with the additional musical information a lis-
tener receives throughout an entire chord progression. Thus, the perception of power chords
within chord progressions may be facilitated by either additional information provided in the
music or by restoration of tones on the part of the listener.
Subsequently, Juchniewicz (2009) sought to determine how listeners perceive and restore
tones when presented with power chords placed within chord progressions. The researcher cre-
ated eight chord progressions, consisting of four chords per progression with each progression
ending with a power chord. The researcher based these eight progressions upon existing pro-
gressions used in a variety of popular Western music rock/pop songs. While all eight progres-
sions were utilized to examine the perception of power chords within chord progressions based
on the major and minor harmonic information presented within chord progressions, the
researcher was particularly interested in the pairing of two versions of the same progression.
Two progressions, one with a sequence of major chords ending with a power chord (F, A♭, E♭,
B♭5) and one with the same chord sequence all performed as power chords (F5, A♭5, E♭5, B♭5),
were created to examine the perception of a major chord progression versus a power-chord
only chord progression (‘5’ indicates ‘power chord’). Conversely, another set of progressions
was created in a similar manner to investigate the perception of a minor chord progression
versus a power-chord only chord progression (Am, C, Dm, A5 and A5, C5, D5, A5). Participants
listened to all eight progressions performed on the piano and rated the tonality (majorness or
122 Psychology of Music 41(1)

minorness) of the terminal chord on a semantic differential scale from minor (1) to major (7),
with a neutral indicator located in the middle of the scale (4). Results indicated significant
differences between each paired set of major and minor chord progressions, thus suggesting
that listeners based their perception of the power chords on the previous tonal information
presented during the entire chord progression. Additionally, across all eight chord progres-
sions, significant differences were found between the undergraduate and graduate participants:
Undergraduate music majors tended to rate most power chords as slightly more major than
graduate music majors.
In Juchniewicz (2009), both the pairing of major and minor chord progressions ending
with a power chord as well as the same chord sequence performed as all power chords yielded
some insight into the influence of previous tonal information on the perception of power
chords. However, more than one set of major and minor chord progressions is needed to rep-
licate and substantiate these findings. Additionally, for purposes of generalization, it would
be appropriate to replicate the study utilizing music performed on instruments typically ger-
mane to popular music where power chords are frequently heard (e.g., the guitar with distor-
tion). Thus, would results be similar if the instruments and sounds idiosyncratic to the
Western rock/pop genre were utilized? Therefore, as Juchniewicz (2009) utilized the piano to
perform each chord progression, the purpose of the current study was to investigate the tonal
perception and restoration of thirds within power chords as performed on guitar under both
clean-tone and distortion conditions. Specifically, the following research questions were
addressed: (1) Does the use of a chord progression composed of power chords or whole chords
effect the perception of a terminal power chord? (2) Does the use of clean-tone or distortion
guitar effects influence the perception of power chords? (3) Does the amount of formal ear-
training affect how power chords are perceived? (4) Does previous experience playing the
guitar influence the tonal perception of power chords?

Method
Participants
Participants (N = 50) were undergraduate music majors from a mid-size southeastern public
university. There was no stipulation as to specific majors of the participants, as the researchers
recruited students from a variety of undergraduate music degree programs. Of the total par-
ticipants, 31 of the participants were female and 18 were male. Participants ranged in age
from 21 to 29 years (M = 21.24, SD = 2.13) and had successfully completed a mean 3.82
(SD = 0.66) semesters of ear training. The authors did not control for previous years of formal
music training. Twenty-eight participants indicated they had previous experience playing the
guitar, while 22 participants did not have any prior experience with the guitar.

Materials
The four chord progressions utilized for the present study were selected from progressions used
in a previous power chord study created by Juchniewicz (2009). These four chord progressions
were based from existing progressions used in a variety of popular Western music rock/pop
songs (e.g., ‘Boulevard of Broken Dreams’ by Green Day, ‘Sample in a Jar’ by Phish, ‘Zombie’ by
The Cranberries, ‘I Get Around’ by Dragonette, ‘Angie’ by the Rolling Stones, ‘Dani California’
by the Red Hot Chili Peppers). For the purposes of this study, the term ‘power chord’ was
Juchniewicz and Silverman 123

operationally defined as a three-pitch chord built as an open fifth interval, without a sounding
third, with the root/tonic both as the highest and lowest pitches of the chord (Juchniewicz,
2009; McDonald, 2000). Regardless of key, all chord progressions ended with a power chord as
the final chord of the sequence.
In order to examine the tonality of terminal power chords within major and minor chord
progressions, power-chord only progressions, and clean-tone and distortion conditions, the
four chord progressions (based from popular rock/pop progressions) developed by Juchniewicz
(2009) were used to create a total of 16 chord progressions. First, two of the four chord pro-
gressions selected contained sequences of major chords ending with a power chord ([progres-
sion 1] F, A♭, E♭, B♭5, [progression 2] B♭m, G♭, D♭, A♭5) and two of the four chord progressions
contained sequences of minor chords ending with a power chord ([progression 3] Gm, Cm, D,
G5, [progression 4] Am, C, Dm, A5). The researchers then created four progressions utilizing
the same chord sequences but only performed as power chords ([1] F5, A♭5, E♭5, B♭5; [2] B♭5,
G♭5, D♭5, A♭5; [3] G5, C5, D5, G5; [4] A5, C5, D5, A5). Finally, the researchers recorded each
of these eight chord progressions twice under both clean-tone and distortion guitar-effect con-
ditions. This resulted in a total of 16 chord progressions. Additionally, to familiarize partici-
pants with the listening process and procedure, the researchers created two practice examples
containing major and minor chords and utilizing both clean-tone and distortion guitar effects.
The researchers voiced all chords such that major/minor chords were performed as root/
fifth/root (octave)/third and power chords as root/fifth/root (octave). The duration of all chords
was approximately two seconds. The researchers utilized a single down strum for each chord.
The chord progressions were digitally recorded multiple times by a professional guitarist on
a Korg D888 Digital Audio Workstation using a 1968 Fender American Stratocaster with
a single-coil neck pick-up through a Line-6 POD Version 2.0 Ultimate Guitar Direct Box on a
Line-6 Crunch with no effects. This apparatus was selected to reproduce the clean tone of a
1968 American Stratocaster through a Transistor Amplifier. To create the distortion sound of
a 1968 Gibson Les Paul played through a Marshall Stack Amplifier, the professional guitarist
played the 1968 Fender American Stratocaster with a Hot Rails double-coil Seymour Duncan
bridge pick-up through a Line-6 POD Version 2.0 Ultimate Guitar Direct Box. This was played
through a Brit high-gain Marshall JCM-800 Amplifier Modeler. The researchers choose these
sounds and instruments as they can be considered germane to Western popular music that
frequently uses power chords. From these recordings, the researchers and two independent
observers selected the clearest performance for each of the chord progressions. Using Protools
HD 7.4 audio software, the researchers layered the progressions so that each chord progression
was played twice with three sec separating each performance. The researchers placed a male
voice at the beginning of each chord sequence to announce the number of each chord progres-
sion. Additionally, to allow time for participants to notate their responses and in an attempt
to reduce memory of the previous progression, the researchers placed 10 seconds of 20th-
century atonal orchestral music between each chord progression (Juchniewicz, 2008, 2009).
After consulting with several experts in the field of music perception and cognition, the
researchers determined that a randomly selected presentation order of the chord progressions
(or the utilization of multiple random presentation orders) to control for order effect could pro-
duce an unintentional order effect in which certain chord progressions could conceivably influ-
ence each other harmonically. Therefore, in order to sequence the presentation order of the
progressions such that each chord progression would not influence the subsequent progression
harmonically (i.e., avoiding tonic, dominant, and/or subdominant relationships between the
end of one chord progression and the beginning of the next) (Juchniewicz, 2009; Krumhansl,
124 Psychology of Music 41(1)

Bharucha, & Kessler, 1982) and to avoid successive clean tone or distortion tone conditions,
only one presentation order became possible. The researchers then created a master audio CD
containing all chord 16 progressions (and two practice examples). The duration of the stimulus
CD was approximately 10 minutes.
The researchers created an evaluation form (which included demographic information) for
participants to rate the tonality of the final chord for each chord progression (Juchniewicz,
2009). All questions on the evaluation form were based on a 7-point semantic differential scale
ranging from minor to major with a neutral indicator located in the middle of the scale. The
assessment scale provided indications for the degree of tonality located on the extreme anchors
of the scale, from 3 on the left side = strongly minor to 3 on the right side = strongly major, with
0 in the middle = neutral. For purposes of data analyses and clarity, these data were later con-
verted to a 7-point Likert-type scale, with 1 representing strongly minor, 4 representing neu-
tral, and 7 representing strongly major. The evaluation form also contained questions assessing
the number of completed semesters of ear training classes, gender, and whether the partici-
pants had experience playing the guitar.

Procedure
The Institutional Review Board of the affiliated university where data collection took place
approved the study a priori. The principle investigator (PI) recruited potential participants from
music classes within the university and tested participants in groups of 10–15. After explain-
ing and obtaining informed consent, the PI distributed the evaluation form and directed partici-
pants to complete the demographic information located at the top of the form. The PI then read
a short introduction to participants prior to the start of the experiment:

You are participating in a study in which you will be evaluating chords. Sixteen chord progressions,
consisting of four chords each, will be played through twice. Upon completion of the second listening,
please indicate your perception of the final chord you hear. You will notice the assessment scale is
marked from minor to major with varying levels from one to three. These levels are there to allow you
to notate the degree of majorness or minorness for your response. For example, if you hear a chord
that is strongly major, circle three on the right side for major. If you hear a chord that you perceive to
be slightly minor, mark one on the left side for minor. If you hear a chord that you do not believe to be
major or minor, mark zero for neutral. Two practice examples are given at the beginning to allow you
to become acquainted with the listening process and evaluation. There will be approximately ten sec
between performance examples to give you ample time to notate your responses. Please note the
evaluation form is two pages with Chord Progressions located on the front and back. Are there any
questions? Please do not talk during the experiment.

Upon completion of the experiment, the PI collected evaluation forms. The total duration of the
experiment was approximately 13 minutes.

Results
To analyze the perception of tonality in the terminal chord of each progression, the research-
ers initially utilized a five-way mixed analysis of variance (ANOVA) with between-subjects
variables of previous guitar playing experience and semesters of previous ear training and
within-subjects variables of chord sequences (1–4), distortion (clean versus distortion), and
type of chords in the progression (whole chords only versus power chords only). The
Juchniewicz and Silverman 125

researchers specifically choose not to analyze data by major and minor progressions in an
attempt to maintain the distinctive and individual nature of each unique chord progression
(Juchniewicz, 2009). Results were not significant for between-subjects variables of previous
guitar playing experience F(1, 42) = 0.02, p = .60, partial η2 = .007 or semesters of ear train-
ing F(4, 42) = 0.90, p = .47, partial η2 = .079. Additionally, there were no significant interac-
tions in the between-subjects effects or between-subjects effects and any of the other variables
(p > .05). Thus, these between-subjects variables were eliminated from final analyses.
Subsequently, the researchers used a three-way repeated measures ANOVA to analyze the
primary dependent measure: participants’ perception of tonality in the terminal chord for each
progression. Within-subjects variables included chord sequences (1–4); distortion (clean ver-
sus distortion); and type of chords in the progression (whole chords only versus power chords
only). Concerning main effects, results were not significant for distortion F(1, 149) = 0.41, p =
.523, partial η2 = .008, or type of chords in the progression F(1, 149) = 2.19, p = .146, partial
η2 = .043. Main effects were significant for chord sequences, F(3, 147) = 15.58, p < .001, par-
tial η2 = .241. Pair-wise comparisons with Bonferroni corrections for multiple comparisons
were then conducted to determine where these differences occurred. Significant differences
were found between chord progressions 1 and 2 (p < .001), chord progressions 2 and 3 (p <
.001), and chord progressions 2 and 4 (p < .001). Overall, participants tended to perceive the
terminal power chord in progression 3 as the most major (M = 5.01, SD = 1.87) (see Table 1).
Additionally, regardless of distortion or type of chords in the progression, participants tended
to perceive all terminal power chords in progressions 1, 2, 3, and 4 as slightly more major than
minor (progression 1: M = 4.45, SD = 1.77, progression 2: M = 4.32, SD = 1.77, progression
3: M = 5.01, SD = 1.87, progression 4: M = 4.38, SD = 1.97). Thus, from these results, there
was significant variance between chord sequences. Moreover, although not significant, descrip-
tive and graphical data in Table 1 and Figure 1 revealed a slight tendency for participants to
perceive terminal power chords as more major during levels of power chords and distortion.
There was a statistically significant three-way interaction between chord sequences, distor-
tion, and type of chords in the progression, F(3, 147) = 32.52, p < .001, partial η2 = .396.
There was a significant two-way interaction between chord sequences and distortion (F[3,
147] = 8.90, p < .001, partial η2 = .154). Interactions were not significant between distortion

Table 1.  Descriptive statistics

Overall Clean Distortion


-
Whole chord Power chord Whole chord Power chord

M SD M SD M SD M SD M SD
Chord sequence 1: 4.45 1.77 4.20 1.54 3.66 1.85 4.70 1.94 5.22 1.75
F, A♭, E♭, B♭5
Chord sequence 2: 4.32 1.77 3.36 1.74 4.18 1.78 4.76 1.88 4.98 1.67
B♭ m, G♭ , D♭ , A♭ 5
Chord sequence 3: 5.01 1.87 4.06 2.19 5.26 2.05 4.34 2.26 6.38 0.99
Gm, Cm, D, G5
Chord sequence 4: 4.38 1.97 3.52 1.79 3.72 1.98 4.80 2.29 5.46 1.81
Am, C, Dm, A5

Notes: Scale: 1 = strongly minor; 4 = neutral; 7 = strongly major


126 Psychology of Music 41(1)

6
Minorness/Majorness

5 Chord sequence 1

Chord sequence 2
4
Chord sequence 3
3
Chord sequence 4
2

1
Clean/Whole Clean/Power Distortion/Whole Distortion/Power

Figure 1. Three-way interaction between chord sequence (1–4), distortion (clean versus distortion), and
type of chords in the progression (whole chord versus power chord).
Note: 1 indicates strongly minor; 4 indicates neutral; 7 indicates strongly major.

and type of chords in the progression (F[1, 49] = 2.41, p = .127, partial η2 = .047) and chord
sequences and type of chords in the progression (F[3,147] = 1.46, p = .226, partial η2 = .029).
Interactions between variables are depicted graphically in Figure 1.

Discussion
The purpose of this study was to investigate the tonal perception and restoration of thirds in
power chords with the instruments and sounds idiosyncratic to the Western rock/pop genre.
Results indicated that the overall mean, comprised of listeners’ perception of the terminal
power chord during chord progressions presented under clean-tone and distortion effect condi-
tions as well as whole-chords only and power-chords only conditions, was the highest for chord
progression 3 (Gm, Cm, D, G5), and thus was perceived as the most major terminal power
chord. Considering this progression contained sequences of minor chords ending with a power
chord this result was not expected (Juchniewicz, 2009). Additionally, it is intriguing that the
terminal power chords in progressions 1 (F, A♭, E♭, B♭5) and 2 (B♭m, G♭, D♭, A♭5), while still
perceived as slightly major, received lower overall mean ratings than the terminal power chord
in progression 3. This finding is of particular interest, as progressions 1 and 2 were constructed
to contain sequences of major chords ending with a power chord, but participants perceived
the terminal power chord in progression 3 as more major than the terminal power chords in
progressions 1 and 2. Further, as chord progression 4 (Am, C, Dm, A5) was constructed as a
minor progression, and in a similar fashion as progression 3 (during whole chord conditions)
actually contained the terminal power chord as a previously sounding minor chord, the fact
that the overall means for both progressions 3 and 4 were perceived as slightly major is cer-
tainly interesting and merits future investigation. Therefore, while these results contradict pre-
vious findings concerning perceptions of terminal power chords within both major and minor
chord progressions (Juchniewicz, 2009), these results appear to highlight significant variance
between chord sequences. Thus, it seems that each chord sequence had unique properties that,
in turn, affected perception of the terminal power chord.
Juchniewicz and Silverman 127

Further examination of data indicated that participants tended to perceive terminal chords
as more major when progressions utilized power chords and distortion. Furthermore, partici-
pants tended to not perceive terminal power chords as minor: Only four of the 16 means found
for the four different listening conditions displayed in Figure 1 were below the neutral indicator
of the scale. These results are congruent with existing research that has demonstrated that
listeners tend to perceive open-fifth intervals as major (Pittenger, 2002). However, these
findings conflict with Juchniewicz (2009), who found that while undergraduate listeners did
perceive power chords as slightly more major than graduate listeners, the major or minor
information presented in the chord progression influenced the direction in which these listen-
ers perceived the terminal power chord. Thus, in Juchniewicz (2009), participants tended to
perceive the terminal power chord as minor when the progression was minor. This was not
the case in the current study: Results indicated that, regardless of major or minor harmonic
information presented in the progression, participants tended to rate the terminal power
chords utilizing power chords in the progression and distortion as more major. Perhaps the
‘musical environment’ (in this case, the chord sequence before the terminal power chord and/
or the distortion) creates anticipation that a chord will be major and previously heard power
chords within the progression and distortion heighten this expectancy. Other researchers
have found tendencies for participants to imagine chords as major (Huron, 2006) and classify
melodies as major (Halpern, Martin, & Reed, 2008). Future research is warranted to determine
if the addition of distortion and power chords intensifies the tendency toward perceiving
melodies and/or chords as major.
Between-subjects effects of previous guitar-playing experience or semesters of ear training
did not affect perception of tonality. This finding is consistent with existing research suggest-
ing that tonality is culturally learned (Farnsworth, 1969; Holleran, Jones, & Butler, 1995;
Huron, 2006; Meyer, 1967; Sloboda, 1985; Taylor, 1976; Tillmann, Bharucha, & Bigand,
2000; Wassum, 1979). However, the researchers only utilized undergraduate music majors –
who were trained as Western/classical musicians – as participants. Furthermore, as most
university ear training classes do not utilize power chords, guitars, or distortion, it seems
appropriate that ear training experience did not affect data. Although previous research has
consistently indicated that musical training does not affect perception of tonality (Bigand &
Poulin-Charronnat, 2006; Cuddy, 1982), results may have been different if vernacular musi-
cians were compared with music majors (Woody & Lehmann, 2010) or if musicians from
other non-Western musical cultures served as participants. These questions could certainly
represent future areas for systematic inquiry.
Another question concerned the idiosyncratic sounds of Western popular music: Are chord
progressions and power chords perceived differently when played on guitar as opposed to piano?
As Juchniewicz (2009) recorded each chord progression on piano, the use of the guitar for the
present study may account for differences in the perception of the terminal power chords as
major. Furthermore, previous researchers have not utilized distortion. Does the use of distor-
tion with a guitar provide additional musical information to the listener, and therefore, influ-
ence the perception of power chords? McDonald (2000) asserts that the use of distortion creates
a thick tone by increasing the amount of audible upper partials. Within the harmonic, or over-
tone series, the first six partials outline a major chord, with the 5th partial producing the sound
of a major third from the fundamental tone. Therefore, if the use of distortion increases the
aural perception of these partials, most notably the sounding major third in the 5th partial,
participants may have been influenced by these overtones and perceived these neutral chords
as major. This extra musical information may account for why participants perceived the power
chords as more major when performed with distortion as opposed to the clean-tone condition.
128 Psychology of Music 41(1)

Future researchers may wish to include a Fourier analysis of the sustained portion of the
terminal chord in an attempt to examine the overtone series produced by the power chords.
It is also possible that differences found between chord sequences were related to the indi-
vidual nature of each unique chord progression. As there are infinitely many different chord
progressions, it may be that each individual progression has its own particular sound and
tonality. Future research is warranted to better understand how musical elements such as
power chords, progressions, timbre and distortion can affect perception of tonality in power
chords. Additionally, studying the interaction – or lack thereof – of these elements may provide
additional insight into musical preference, perception, and cognition. During future research
trials, researchers could also investigate different strum patterns on the guitar: In the current
study, the researchers only utilized down-strums in an attempt to control for this potentially
confounding variable. However, it may be that more complicated strum patterns (i.e., utilizing
both down and up strums in syncopated rhythms) can further influence perception of tonality.
These issues certainly represent future areas for systematic inquiry.
One potential limitation of this investigation includes the absence of data indicating partici-
pants’ average years of formal training. While the researchers provided mean age and other
demographic information concerning participants’ musical background, the unavailability of
data concerning participants’ years of formal training makes it difficult to report specific
musical expertise/sophistication. While this is certainly a limitation of the current study, issues
concerning formal music training are typically complicated to define and control. There is also
the possibility that order, learning, and practice effects may have influenced data. Originally,
the researchers debated utilizing multiple randomized orders or a Latin Square Design in an
attempt to control for these kinds of effects. However, after consulting with external experts in
music perception, cognition, theory, and research design, the researchers decided to not use
randomization in an attempt to avoid having similar progressions or influential chords played
sequentially (Juchniewicz, 2009; Krumhansl, Bharucha, & Kessler, 1982). The researchers
also utilized 10-sec of 20th-century atonal orchestral music between the chord progressions in
an attempt to reduce/eliminate memory of the previous progression (Juchniewicz, 2008,
2009). Future researchers might wish to include additional steps to help control for possible
order effects when investigating the perception of a terminal power chord after listening to
repeated recordings of similar progressions. Finally, while a more theoretical analysis of the
power chords, including Fourier analysis, keyfinding algorithms (Krumhansl, 2001; Temperley,
1999), and spectrograms may have produced more definitive conclusions as to what was physi-
cally sounding within the power chords, the primary focus of this investigation was to ascertain
undergraduate participants’ initial perceptions of power chords within varying chord progres-
sions and guitar effects conditions. Subsequent research examining power chords from a theo-
retical, perceptual, and acoustical basis is certainly warranted to obtain a more holistic sense of
how people perceive power chords.
The purpose of this study was to investigate the tonal perception and restoration of thirds
within power chords with instruments and sounds idiosyncratic to the Western rock/pop genre.
Since previous researchers had not utilized guitar or distortion, the current study was unique
in that it incorporated guitar, power chords, and distortion – all musical elements germane to
Western popular music. Future research in this area could involve the use of power chords in
other modes (e.g., lyidan, mixolydian, dorian, etc.), different types of strum patterns, or other
guitar tunings (e.g., dropped D or open chord). Additionally, researchers could investigate per-
ception of tonality in other types of guitar effects frequently associated with Western popular
music such as flangers, wa-wa pedals, delay, and other digital enhancements. Although the
Juchniewicz and Silverman 129

current study utilized power chords composed of three notes (root, fifth, and root/octave),
guitarists often play power chords using only two notes (root and fifth). Researchers could
investigate if the addition of the highest sounding root/octave influences perception. Future
research is warranted to better understand how listeners, both musically trained and not-
trained, perceive sounds idiosyncratic to the Western rock/pop genre.

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Author biographies
Jay Juchniewicz is assistant professor of music education at East Carolina University. His
research interests are in perception and cognition and music teacher education.

Michael J. Silverman is director of music therapy at the University of Minnesota. His research
interests are in psychiatric music therapy and utilizing music to facilitate memory.