Perceptual interactions between musical pitch and timbre

J Exp Psychol Hum Percept Perform. 1992 Aug;18(3):739-51. doi: 10.1037//0096-1523.18.3.739.


These experiments examined perceptual interactions between musical pitch and timbre. Experiment 1, through the use of the Garner classification tasks, found that pitch and timbre of isolated tones interact. Classification times showed interference from uncorrelated variation in the irrelevant attribute and facilitation from correlated variation; the effects were symmetrical. Experiments 2 and 3 examined how musical pitch and timbre function in longer sequences. In recognition memory tasks, a target tone always appeared in a fixed position in the sequences, and listeners were instructed to attend to either its pitch or its timbre. For successive tones, no interactions between timbre and pitch were found. That is, changing the pitches of context tones did not affect timbre recognition, and vice versa. The tendency to perceive pitch in relation to other context pitches was strong and unaffected by whether timbre was constant or varying. In contrast, the relative perception of timbre was weak and was found only when pitch was constant. These results suggest that timbre is perceived more in absolute than in relative terms. Perceptual implications for creating patterns in music with timbre variations are discussed.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Attention
  • Auditory Perception*
  • Humans
  • Mental Recall
  • Music*
  • Pitch Discrimination*
  • Reaction Time
  • Sound Spectrography