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Cognition. 2012 Jan;122(1):51-60. doi: 10.1016/j.cognition.2011.08.008. Epub 2011 Sep 10.

Stimulus-dependent flexibility in non-human auditory pitch processing.

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Department of Cognitive Science, UC San Diego, La Jolla, CA, United States.


Songbirds and humans share many parallels in vocal learning and auditory sequence processing. However, the two groups differ notably in their abilities to recognize acoustic sequences shifted in absolute pitch (pitch height). Whereas humans maintain accurate recognition of words or melodies over large pitch height changes, songbirds are comparatively much poorer at recognizing pitch-shifted tone sequences. This apparent disparity may reflect fundamental differences in the neural mechanisms underlying the representation of sound in songbirds. Alternatively, because non-human studies have used sine-tone stimuli almost exclusively, tolerance to pitch height changes in the context of natural signals may be underestimated. Here, we show that European starlings, a species of songbird, can maintain accurate recognition of the songs of other starlings when the pitch of those songs is shifted by as much as ±40%. We observed accurate recognition even for songs pitch-shifted well outside the range of frequencies used during training, and even though much smaller pitch shifts in conspecific songs are easily detected. With similar training using human piano melodies, recognition of the pitch-shifted melodies is very limited. These results demonstrate that non-human pitch processing is more flexible than previously thought and that the flexibility in pitch processing strategy is stimulus dependent.

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