Pitch perception beyond the traditional existence region of pitch

Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2011 May 3;108(18):7629-34. doi: 10.1073/pnas.1015291108. Epub 2011 Apr 18.


Humans' ability to recognize musical melodies is generally limited to pure-tone frequencies below 4 or 5 kHz. This limit coincides with the highest notes on modern musical instruments and is widely believed to reflect the upper limit of precise stimulus-driven spike timing in the auditory nerve. We tested the upper limits of pitch and melody perception in humans using pure and harmonic complex tones, such as those produced by the human voice and musical instruments, in melody recognition and pitch-matching tasks. We found that robust pitch perception can be elicited by harmonic complex tones with fundamental frequencies below 2 kHz, even when all of the individual harmonics are above 6 kHz--well above the currently accepted existence region of pitch and above the currently accepted limits of neural phase locking. The results suggest that the perception of musical pitch at high frequencies is not constrained by temporal phase locking in the auditory nerve but may instead stem from higher-level constraints shaped by prior exposure to harmonic sounds.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural

MeSH terms

  • Acoustic Stimulation
  • Cochlear Nerve / physiology*
  • Humans
  • Music*
  • Pitch Perception / physiology*