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Noon Edition

Varying Perceptions Of Pitch

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D:        Mind if I put on some music, Yaël?

Y:        Sounds great, Don. I’ve always liked working to music.

D:        So you listen to music a lot?

Y:        More or less. Why?

D:        You can probably perceive the similarity between two of the same notes in different octaves—high C and middle C, for example.

Y:        Sure. Can’t everyone?

D:        Most people in Western countries can, but scientists have long wondered whether it’s innate knowledge or learned through exposure. It’s been difficult to find an answer because it’s so rare to find people who haven’t been exposed to Western music. Now, after carrying out a study with the Tsimane’ people, a tribe living in a remote part of the Bolivian rainforest, scientists have found evidence that it’s a learned skill. In their study, researchers played a simple melody of two or three notes to U.S. and Tsimane’ participants. The participants were told to sing back the melody within their singing range. Overall, the U.S. participants were able to sing back the correct sequence of notes in a different octave, but the Tsimane’ participants weren’t. They replicated the relative pitch differences between notes, but they would sing them back an octave plus a second, or an octave plus a third, for example. The researchers say that though humans might have an innate predisposition to recognize the similarity between the same notes in different octaves—there’s a natural mathematical relationship between them, after all—we might not be able to tap into that predisposition unless we’re exposed to music based on octaves.

Y:        Speaking of being exposed to music, weren’t you going to turn some on?

D:        Oh, right.

Photo of a piano.

Not everyone can hear the difference between the same note in two different octaves. (Morn the Gorn, Wikimedia Commons)

People who listen to music a lot can perceive the similarity between two of the same notes in different octaves, such as high C and middle C. This may not seem like such a unique ability, since most people in Western countries are able to do this.

Still, scientists have long wondered whether it's innate knowledge or learned through exposure. It's been difficult to find an answer because it's so rare to find people who haven't been exposed to Western music. 

Now, after carrying out a study with the Tsimane' people, a group of people living in a remote part of the Bolivian rainforest, scientists have found evidence that it's a learned skill. In their study, researchers played a simple melody of two or three notes to U.S. and Tsimane' participants. 

The participants were told to sing back the melody within their singing range. Overall, the U.S. participants were able to sing back the correct sequence of notes in a different octave, but the Tsimane' participants were not. They replicated the relative pitch differences between notes, but they would sing them back an octave plus a second, or an octave plus a third, for example.

The researchers say that although humans might have an innate predisposition to recognize the similarity between the same notes in different octaves, we might not be able to tap into that predisposition unless we're exposed to music based on octaves. 

 

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