Beethoven's last piano sonata and those who follow crocodiles: Cross-domain mappings of auditory pitch in a musical context

Zohar Eitan*, Renee Timmers

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Though auditory pitch is customarily mapped in Western cultures onto spatial verticality (high-low), both anthropological reports and cognitive studies suggest that pitch may be mapped onto a wide variety of other domains. We collected a total number of 35 pitch mappings and investigated in four experiments how these mappings are used and structured. In particular, we inquired (1) how Western subjects apply Western and non-Western metaphors to "high" and "low" pitches, (2) whether mappings applied in an abstract conceptual task are similarly applied by listeners to actual music, (3) how mappings of spatial height relate to these pitch mappings, and (4) how mappings of "high" and "low" pitch associate with other dimensions, in particular quantity, size, intensity and valence. The results show strong agreement among Western participants in applying familiar and unfamiliar metaphors for pitch, in both an abstract, conceptual task (Exp. 1) and in a music listening task (Exp. 2), indicating that diverse cross-domain mappings for pitch exist latently besides the common verticality metaphor. Furthermore, limited overlap between mappings of spatial height and pitch height was found, suggesting that, the ubiquity of the verticality metaphor in Western usage notwithstanding, cross-domain pitch mappings are largely independent of that metaphor, and seem to be based upon other underlying dimensions. Part of the discrepancy between spatial height and pitch height is that, for pitch, "up" is not necessarily "more," nor is it necessarily "good." High pitch is only "more" for height, intensity and brightness. It is "less" for mass, size and quantity. We discuss implications of these findings for music and speech prosody, and their relevance to notions of embodied cognition and of cross-domain magnitude representation.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)405-422
Number of pages18
Issue number3
StatePublished - Mar 2010


  • Auditory pitch
  • Cross-domain mapping
  • Metaphor
  • Music cognition


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