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J Acoust Soc Am. 2010 Oct;128(4):1943-51. doi: 10.1121/1.3478785.

Musical intervals and relative pitch: frequency resolution, not interval resolution, is special.

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Center for Neural Science, New York University, 4 Washington Place, New York, New York 10003, USA.


Pitch intervals are central to most musical systems, which utilize pitch at the expense of other acoustic dimensions. It seemed plausible that pitch might uniquely permit precise perception of the interval separating two sounds, as this could help explain its importance in music. To explore this notion, a simple discrimination task was used to measure the precision of interval perception for the auditory dimensions of pitch, brightness, and loudness. Interval thresholds were then expressed in units of just-noticeable differences for each dimension, to enable comparison across dimensions. Contrary to expectation, when expressed in these common units, interval acuity was actually worse for pitch than for loudness or brightness. This likely indicates that the perceptual dimension of pitch is unusual not for interval perception per se, but rather for the basic frequency resolution it supports. The ubiquity of pitch in music may be due in part to this fine-grained basic resolution.

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