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J Acoust Soc Am. 2013 Oct;134(4):3067-78. doi: 10.1121/1.4816546.

Bimodal distribution of performance in discriminating major/minor modes.

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Department of Cognitive Sciences, University of California at Irvine, Irvine, California 92697-5100.


This study investigated the abilities of listeners to classify various sorts of musical stimuli as major vs minor. All stimuli combined four pure tones: low and high tonics (G5 and G6), dominant (D), and either a major third (B) or a minor third (B[symbol: see text]). Especially interesting results were obtained using tone-scrambles, randomly ordered sequences of pure tones presented at ≈15 per second. All tone-scrambles tested comprised 16 G's (G5's + G6's), 8 D's, and either 8 B's or 8 B[symbol: see text]'s. The distribution of proportion correct across 275 listeners tested over the course of three experiments was strikingly bimodal, with one mode very close to chance performance, and the other very close to perfect performance. Testing with tone-scrambles thus sorts listeners fairly cleanly into two subpopulations. Listeners in subpopulation 1 are sufficiently sensitive to major vs minor to classify tone-scrambles nearly perfectly; listeners in subpopulation 2 (comprising roughly 70% of the population) have very little sensitivity to major vs minor. Skill in classifying major vs minor tone-scrambles shows a modest correlation of around 0.5 with years of musical training.

[Indexed for MEDLINE]

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