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musical training and pitch resolution

G. Robert Arrabito and List,

Lloyd Jeffress wrote a letter about a related issue, published in JASA
nearly 50 years ago. Like much of Lloyd's prose it is thoughtful, but
with a touch of whimsy. 

Here is a little of that brief essay, maybe it will tempt someone to
look up the whole in the archives.

"To the parsimonious, the idea that the human race comprises two
populations, one capable of developing absolute pitch,
the other not, is offensive. There is one population too many. In
the past, some have got rid of one of the populations by denying
that absolute pitch exists, arguing that it merely represents an
extreme of the relative pitch capability to be found in anyone.
Others have done away instead with the second population by
declaring that absolute pitch does exist and that all that is required
to have it is practice." (Jeffress, 1962)

Lloyd continued on to make a case for excellent pitch processing by
musicians as an instance of something like "imprinting", for which his
example was ducklings who latch on to a human, in the absence of mother
duck. Only in a musical household is a child corrected when producing a
"non-musical" pitch or interval, and only in such households is a fuss
made about the quality of a sustained bowed, blown, or vocalized tone.
The fascination with neural plasticity provides continuing ala mode
support for that sort of explanation.

BUT, the problem that remains is the near-impossibility of sorting out
the contributions of nature and nurture in this as in so many other
areas.  Murray Spiegel and I looked into the matter a little, first by
comparing pitch-pattern discrimination skills of college students with
and without musical training. Musical background didn't contribute much,
although it could be argued that the task we used was not a musical one.
Thinking that we might have failed because our musicians were not far
enough out in the musical tail of the distribution, Murray recruited a
sizeable group from the St. Louis Symphony.  (I was away on a trip and
returned to find TV trucks outside CID, and the demand that the news
guys be allowed to film the testing...we demurred.) At any rate the
comparison between the musicians' pitch discrimination (we didn't do
perfect-pitch identification testing) for sinusoids and square waves
(the latter a bit more like a musical timbre), and that of age/education
matched nonmusicians led us to conclude that musicians show no evidence
of special frequency resolving power, compared to lots of nonmusicians.
Some nonmusicians appear to have very poorly developed pitch skills and
are probably told to stand in the back and mouth the words.

More recently, we've collected additional data on individual differences
in the population, in frequency resolution and in other aspects of
auditory processing. As in the earlier studies, the distribution seems
skewed with a long tail of lousy performance, while the good performers
are pretty tightly packed near a threshold change in proportional
frequency (a Weber ratio) of about .002-.003.  Jim Miller has convinced
me that the length of the cochlea (a 3:2 ratio, from longest to shortest
in humans) may explain some of the variance among the good performers.
As to the abilities to identify notes or timbres I fear that, until
proven otherwise, early, appropriate, and intense experience remains the
most plausible explanation.  Thanks, Lloyd.

Chuck Watson

Jeffress,L. A. (1962) Absolute Pitch (Letter)
J. Acoust. Soc. Am. 34, 987 (1962)

Spiegel, M.F., and Watson, C.S. (1984).  Performance on frequency
discrimination tasks by musicians and nonmusicians. J. Acoust. Soc. Am.,
76, 1690-1695. 

Surprenant, A.M. & Watson, C.S. (2001) Individual differences in the
processing of speech and nonspeech sounds by normal-hearing listeners
J. Acoust. Soc. Am. 110, 2085-2095.

Kidd, G.R., Watson, C.S. & Gygi, B.(2000)	Individual differences
in auditory abilities among normal-hearing listeners.  J. Acoust. Soc.
Am. 108, 2641 (article under review)