Two experiments explored the representation of the tonal hierarchy in Western music among older (aged 60 to 80) and younger (aged 15 to 22) musicians and nonmusicians. A probe tone technique was used: 4 notes from the major triad were presented, followed by 1 note chosen from the 12 notes of the chromatic scale. Whereas musicians had a better sense of the tonal hierarchy than nonmusicians, older adults were no worse than younger adults in differentiating the notes according to musical principles. However, older adults were more prone than younger adults to classify the notes by frequency proximity (pitch height) when proximity was made more salient, as were nonmusicians compared with musicians. With notes having ambiguous pitch height, pitch height effects disappeared among older adults but not nonmusicians. Older adults seem to have internalized tonal structure, but they sometimes fail to inhibit less musically relevant information.
Psychology and Aging
Halpern, Andrea; Kwak, S.Y.; Bartlett, J.C.; and Dowling, W.J.. "The effects of aging and musical experience on the representation of tonal hierarchies." Psychology and Aging (1996) : 235-246.