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J Acoust Soc Am. 2012 Aug;132(2):984-93. doi: 10.1121/1.4733535.

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

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  • 1Department of Psychology, New York University, 6 Washington Place, New York, New York 10003, USA. jean.m.zarate@nyu.edu


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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