Perception of musical pitch varies across cultures [MIT News]

September 19, 2019

How people interpret musical notes depends on the types of music they have listened to, researchers find.

Anne Trafton | MIT News Office

People who are accustomed to listening to Western music, which is based on a system of notes organized in octaves, can usually perceive the similarity between notes that are same but played in different registers — say, high C and middle C. However, a longstanding question is whether this a universal phenomenon or one that has been ingrained by musical exposure.

This question has been hard to answer, in part because of the difficulty in finding people who have not been exposed to Western music. Now, a new study led by researchers from MIT and the Max Planck Institute for Empirical Aesthetics has found that unlike residents of the United States, people living in a remote area of the Bolivian rainforest usually do not perceive the similarities between two versions of the same note played at different registers (high or low).

The findings suggest that although there is a natural mathematical relationship between the frequencies of every “C,” no matter what octave it’s played in, the brain only becomes attuned to those similarities after hearing music based on octaves, says Josh McDermott, an associate professor in MIT’s Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences.

“It may well be that there is a biological predisposition to favor octave relationships, but it doesn’t seem to be realized unless you are exposed to music in an octave-based system,” says McDermott, who is also a member of MIT’s McGovern Institute for Brain Research and Center for Brains, Minds and Machines.

The study also found that members of the Bolivian tribe, known as the Tsimane’, and Westerners do have a very similar upper limit on the frequency of notes that they can accurately distinguish, suggesting that that aspect of pitch perception may be independent of musical experience and biologically determined...

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