Why do skips precede reversals?

The effect of tessitura on melodic structure.

Paul von Hippel and David Huron
Music Perception, Vol. 18, No. 1 (2000) pp. 59-85.


In melodies from a wide variety of cultures, a large pitch interval tends to be followed by a change of direction. Although this tendency is often attributed to listeners' expectations, it might arise more simply from constraints on melodic ranginess or tessitura. Skips tend toward the extremes of a melody's tessitura, and from those extremes a melody has little choice but to retreat by changing direction.

Statistical analyses of vocal melodies from four different continents are consistent with this simple explanation. The results suggest that, in the sampled repertories, patterns such as "gap- fill," "registral direction," and "registral return" (Meyer, 1956, 1973; Narmour, 1990) are mere side effects of constraints on melodic tessitura.

The full text for this paper is available in either postscript format (article, figure) or pdf format (article, figure).

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