Identification, discrimination, and selective adaptation of simultaneous musical intervals

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Perception and Psychophysics





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Four experiments investigated perception of major and minor thirds whose component tones were sounded simultaneously. Effects akin to categorical perception of speech sounds were found. In the first experiment, musicians demonstrated relatively sharp category boundaries in identification and peaks near the boundary in discrimination tasks of an interval continuum where the bottom note was always an F and the top note varied from A to A flat in seven equal logarithmic steps. Nonmusicians showed these effects only to a small extent. The musicians showed higher than predicted discrimination performance overall, and reaction time increases at category boundaries. In the second experiment, musicians failed to consistently identify or discriminate thirds which varied in absolute pitch, but retained the proper interval ratio. In the last two experiments, using selective adaptation, consistent shifts were found in both identification and discrimination, similar to those found in speech experiments. Manipulations of adapting and test showed that the mechanism underlying the effect appears to be centrally mediated and confined to a frequency-specific level. A multistage model of interval perception, where the first stages deal only with specific pitches may account for the results.


This research was supported in part by NICHD Grant HD 05331-09 to P. D. Eimas. Some of the results of these experiments were presented at the 97th meeting of the Acoustical Society of America, Cambridge, Massachusetts, June 1979.

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