Abstract: Is relative pitch specific to pitch?

Is relative pitch specific to pitch?

J H McDermott, A J Lehr and A J Oxenham

Published in Psychological Science, vol.19(12), pp. 1263--1271, May 2008.

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  • Melodies, speech, and other stimuli that vary in pitch are processed largely in terms of the relative pitch differences between sounds. Relative representations permit recognition of pitch patterns despite variations in overall pitch level between instruments or speakers. A key component of relative pitch is the sequence of pitch increases and decreases from note to note, known as the melodic contour. Here we report that contour representations are also produced by patterns in loudness and brightness (an aspect of timbre). The representations of contours in different dimensions evidently have much in common, as contours in one dimension can be readily recognized in other dimensions. Moreover, contours in loudness and brightness are nearly as useful as pitch contours for recognizing familiar melodies that are normally conveyed via pitch. Our results indicate that relative representations via contour extraction are a general feature of the auditory system, and may have a common central locus.
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