Abstract: Universal and non-universal features of musical pitch perception revealed by singing

Universal and non-universal features of musical pitch perception revealed by singing

N Jacoby, E A Undurraga, M J McPherson, J Valdes, T Ossandon and J H McDermott

Published in Current Biology, vol.29 pp. 3229-3243, Sep 2019.

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  • Commentary by Daniel Pressnitzer and Laurent Demany

  • Musical pitch perception is argued to result from nonmusical biological constraints and thus to have similar characteristics across cultures, but its universality remains unclear. We probed pitch representations in residents of the Bolivian Amazon - the Tsimane', who live in relative isolation from Western culture - as well as US musicians and non-musicians. Participants sang back tone sequences presented in different frequency ranges. Sung responses of Amazonian and US participants approximately replicated heard intervals on a logarithmic scale, even for tones outside the singing range. Moreover, Amazonian and US reproductions both deteriorated for high-frequency tones even though they were fully audible. But whereas US participants tended to reproduce notes an integer number of octaves above or below the heard tones, Amazonians did not, ignoring the note 'chroma' (C, D, etc.). Chroma matching in US participants was more pronounced in US musicians than non-musicians, was not affected by feedback, and was correlated with similarity-based measures of octave equivalence as well as the ability to match the absolute f0 of a stimulus in the singing range. The results suggest the cross-cultural presence of logarithmic scales for pitch, and biological constraints on the limits of pitch, but indicate that octave equivalence may be culturally contingent, plausibly dependent on pitch representations that develop from experience with particular musical systems.
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