Among the most exciting aspects of John Holden’s Essay towards a Rational System of Music (1770) is its explicit ambition to explain musical practice by means of a limited set of psychological first principles. Relying primarily on introspection, it nonetheless describes phenomena that we today understand as grouping, chunking, and subjective rhythmicization. In the absence of anything resembling a modern theory of cognition, Holden’s account of how we can perceive music chiefly relies on the actions of posited mental faculties, including attention, memory, imagination, and expectation. These concepts allow him to develop detailed speculations about a range of conscious and unconscious dispositions of perception. This study explicates the Essay’s speculative theories and contextualizes them both within eighteenth-century music theory and in light of contemporary psychology.

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