Pitch-interval discrimination and musical expertise: Is the semitone a perceptual boundary?

Department of Psychology, New York University, 6 Washington Place, New York, New York 10003, USA.
The Journal of the Acoustical Society of America (Impact Factor: 1.5). 08/2012; 132(2):984-93. DOI: 10.1121/1.4733535
Source: PubMed


The ability to discriminate pitch changes (or intervals) is foundational for speech and music. In an auditory psychophysical experiment, musicians and non-musicians were tested with fixed- and roving-pitch discrimination tasks to investigate the effects of musical expertise on interval discrimination. The tasks were administered parametrically to assess performance across varying pitch distances between intervals. Both groups showed improvements in fixed-pitch interval discrimination as a function of increasing interval difference. Only musicians showed better roving-pitch interval discrimination as interval differences increased, suggesting that this task was too demanding for non-musicians. Musicians had better interval discrimination than non-musicians across most interval differences in both tasks. Interestingly, musicians exhibited improved interval discrimination starting at interval differences of 100 cents (a semitone in Western music), whereas non-musicians showed enhanced discrimination at interval differences exceeding 125 cents. Although exposure to Western music and speech may help establish a basic interval-discrimination threshold between 100 and 200 cents (intervals that occur often in Western languages and music), musical training presumably enhances auditory processing and reduces this threshold to a semitone. As musical expertise does not decrease this threshold beyond 100 cents, the semitone may represent a musical training-induced intervallic limit to acoustic processing.

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    • "978 ; Burns and Campbell , 1994 ; McDermott et al . , 2010 ) . McDermott et al . ( 2010 ) proposed that non - musician NH lis - teners may use the overlearned musical pitch structures ( such as familiar melodies and scales ) to overcome the seemingly inadequate interval ranking thresholds ( i . e . , those above 1 semitone ) for music perception . Zarate et al . ( 2012 ) argued that even for musicians , 1 semitone may be the intervallic limit to interval perception induced by musical training . CI users in this study had an exceptional ability of basic pitch ranking that was not significantly different from that of NH listeners . As shown in Fig . 5 , six CI users all exceeded the expectations in pitc"
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    ABSTRACT: The perception of melodic intervals (sequential pitch differences) is essential to music perception. This study tested melodic interval perception in normal-hearing (NH) listeners and cochlear implant (CI) users. Melodic interval ranking was tested using an adaptive procedure. CI users had slightly higher interval ranking thresholds than NH listeners. Both groups' interval ranking thresholds, although not affected by root note, significantly increased with standard interval size and were higher for descending intervals than for ascending intervals. The pitch direction effect may be due to a procedural artifact or a difference in central processing. In another test, familiar melodies were played with all the intervals scaled by a single factor. Subjects rated how in tune the melodies were and adjusted the scaling factor until the melodies sounded the most in tune. CI users had lower final interval ratings and less change in interval rating as a function of scaling factor than NH listeners. For CI users, the root-mean-square error of the final scaling factors and the width of the interval rating function were significantly correlated with the average ranking threshold for ascending rather than descending intervals, suggesting that CI users may have focused on ascending intervals when rating and adjusting the melodies.
    Full-text · Article · Oct 2014 · The Journal of the Acoustical Society of America
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    • "We parametrically varied the magnitude differences between intervals within a trial from 0 to 100 cents (a semitone in Western music) in 25-cent increments. We chose 100 cents as the maximum interval-difference due to both its musical relevance and the observation that musicians' performances approach a ceiling of maximum accuracy at around this magnitude [12]. Zero-cent differences between intervals in a trial were included to observe whether subjects—when forced to guess— had a response bias based on timbre type. "
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    ABSTRACT: We tested non-musicians and musicians in an auditory psychophysical experiment to assess the effects of timbre manipulation on pitch-interval discrimination. Both groups were asked to indicate the larger of two presented intervals, comprised of four sequentially presented pitches; the second or fourth stimulus within a trial was either a sinusoidal (or "pure"), flute, piano, or synthetic voice tone, while the remaining three stimuli were all pure tones. The interval-discrimination tasks were administered parametrically to assess performance across varying pitch distances between intervals ("interval-differences"). Irrespective of timbre, musicians displayed a steady improvement across interval-differences, while non-musicians only demonstrated enhanced interval discrimination at an interval-difference of 100 cents (one semitone in Western music). Surprisingly, the best discrimination performance across both groups was observed with pure-tone intervals, followed by intervals containing a piano tone. More specifically, we observed that: 1) timbre changes within a trial affect interval discrimination; and 2) the broad spectral characteristics of an instrumental timbre may influence perceived pitch or interval magnitude and make interval discrimination more difficult.
    Full-text · Article · Sep 2013 · PLoS ONE
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    • "Table 2 delineates the overall mean and distribution of participant performance on these measures, and Figure 2 shows the discrimination contours. Measured values for pure-tone discrimination threshold (26 ± 5 cents) versus a reference tone of 233 Hz closely correspond to previously reported values in this range [33,55]. Participants’ aggregated results are available online (Archive S4). "
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    ABSTRACT: Language and music epitomize the complex representational and computational capacities of the human mind. Strikingly similar in their structural and expressive features, a longstanding question is whether the perceptual and cognitive mechanisms underlying these abilities are shared or distinct - either from each other or from other mental processes. One prominent feature shared between language and music is signal encoding using pitch, conveying pragmatics and semantics in language and melody in music. We investigated how pitch processing is shared between language and music by measuring consistency in individual differences in pitch perception across language, music, and three control conditions intended to assess basic sensory and domain-general cognitive processes. Individuals' pitch perception abilities in language and music were most strongly related, even after accounting for performance in all control conditions. These results provide behavioral evidence, based on patterns of individual differences, that is consistent with the hypothesis that cognitive mechanisms for pitch processing may be shared between language and music.
    Full-text · Article · Aug 2013 · PLoS ONE
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