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Is pitch perception a universal human phenomenon?

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In the latest edition of The Psychologist - the magazine of the British Psychological Society - is a short article in the research section that discusses whether pitch perception is a universal human phenomenon. I'll try to paraphrase it:

"In Western music, the octave system is mathematically based - move up an octave, and a given note doubles in frequency. Perhaps Western music has come to use this system because it relates to the way sound waves physically stimulate the cochlea in the inner ear. In other words, there's something biologically fundamental, and universal, about the way we perceive pitch. But, is this true for non-Western music?

In 2019, a team from the Max Planck institute revealed that a remote group of people living in the Bolivian rainforest doesn't process pitch in this way. The Bolivians don't perceive similarities between two notes an octave apart.

This work adds to other research, notably in vision and smell, revealing that, while all humans possess the same hardware, culture influences our sensory perceptions."

I thought that was rather interesting.

 

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I have wondered the same thing myself.

Because for example an octave has a mathematical basis (double/ or half) I just assume that there is no cultural component to it. But maybe I'm wrong.

However.............I remember when I was first learning bass someone was playing an E chord and said to play an E along with it on bass. I asked which one (i had learned the fretboard) - a low E or high E and they said either - they are [harmonically] the same. Up till then (well the short time from when I first picked up a bass) I thought of them as different because one sounds high and one low.... never saw (heard) that they had something in common.

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To answer the question in the thread title...no.

 

There are tone deaf people, completely deaf people, and people that have perfectly serviceable hearing but who simply don't get it. I guess the Bolivian folk were of that ilk.

 

Alas, we don't get interesting stuff like that in the Geologists Association magazine.

Edited by Bassfinger

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We learn the scales and the frequencies. A has been 415 Hz during Baroque, and now we are heading past the 440 Hz: many symphony bands are using up to 445 Hz as an A.

There is no celestial mathematics behind Western music, just agreements. There are cultures that divide the octave to 24 or 32 notes. We use approximately equally tempered scale, while there are many others that sound better with certain instruments.

If there was only one scale and tempering and A, perfect pitch could be something special, now we have people that have learned one specific system. Come on, Wolfgang had perfect pitch, although his A was around 415, not 440 Hz.

The frequencies have been chosen, because our ears can hear certain frequencies better than others, namely 1 - 5 kHz. If the center frequency would be 3.36 Hz or 100 kHz, our ears would have been very different. Even basic quantities are chosen because they represent us. This kind of an article is quite some fun.

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In his fascinating book Musicophilia, the neurologist Oliver Sacks mentions that some people discern pitch differently from one ear to the other. Extraordinary.

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8 hours ago, itu said:

We learn the scales and the frequencies. A has been 415 Hz during Baroque, and now we are heading past the 440 Hz: many symphony bands are using up to 445 Hz as an A.

There is no celestial mathematics behind Western music, just agreements. There are cultures that divide the octave to 24 or 32 notes. We use approximately equally tempered scale, while there are many others that sound better with certain instruments.

That is slightly different than this though, that is just the same name for different thing. It makes no difference if your A is 410 or 450, your scale is still the same (back then scales were different anyway, but also not really relevant). Like with colours, it doesn't matter if you call green yellow, if everyone calls green yellow. 

Also however many notes you divide an octave by is just cultural, but that still involves dividing an octave, what is discussed there is not having a an octave at all.

8 hours ago, itu said:

If there was only one scale and tempering and A, perfect pitch could be something special, now we have people that have learned one specific system. Come on, Wolfgang had perfect pitch, although his A was around 415, not 440 Hz.

It doesn't make a difference with perfect pitch. If you have perfect pitch, one pitch is always that pitch, regardless of what you call it, it is just a question of using the right labels, but doesn't change you hear the note.

In fact when it comes down to it, it is actually a very odd thing that we don't all have perfect pitch, I guess because we hadn't been taught when we were young (see Rick Beatos videos on it), in the way we were taught sight. If you ask people to give the names of light at 560THz or 450THz , most people will get Green or Red. If you play some sound at 880Hz, very few people will give you the note.

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14 hours ago, Nail Soup said:

I have wondered the same thing myself.

Because for example an octave has a mathematical basis (double/ or half) I just assume that there is no cultural component to it. But maybe I'm wrong.

However.............I remember when I was first learning bass someone was playing an E chord and said to play an E along with it on bass. I asked which one (i had learned the fretboard) - a low E or high E and they said either - they are [harmonically] the same. Up till then (well the short time from when I first picked up a bass) I thought of them as different because one sounds high and one low.... never saw (heard) that they had something in common.

My other half is attempting to learn piano, and she's really struggling. I show her how to play a scale, saying something like: "Let's start on C, do the do-rey-me thing, until we hit C again" Blank looks. She regards two C's an octave apart as different notes because they sound different. She is not Bolivian.

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1 hour ago, solo4652 said:

She is not Bolivian.

Have you don't one of those anscestry.com DNA tests, just to check if she has bolivian roots?

But to be fair, this stuff is so much easier to learn when you are a kid.

Its important to let her listen to the notes together to show how they sound, like C & D together, not great, tense. C&E, thats ok, C&G thats ok, and then C&C, they sound like they are supposed to be together, like the same thing.

Well, depending on the anscestry.com results obvs.

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12 hours ago, Woodinblack said:

If you ask people to give the names of light at 560THz or 450THz , most people will get Green or Red. If you play some sound at 880Hz, very few people will give you the note.

Well written, this was the only thing I had to point out (and I do drift slightly away from the original topic). There are similarly many hues of green and red (yes, I have done some professional photography). We can usually compare two, because our relative senses can figure even tiny differences very accurately. But absolute measures are not so easy, because that is how our senses have evolved. Think about taste, angles...

Absolute perfect pitch is not so common, but players usually have an absolute relative pitch. That is what I think is more important to have, because we usually play with others and we need to play together.

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1 hour ago, itu said:

Absolute perfect pitch is not so common, but players usually have an absolute relative pitch. That is what I think is more important to have, because we usually play with others and we need to play together.

You say that but I have been surprised about how many guitarists I have met who genuinely don't notice when they are out of tune. I don't know it happens

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30 minutes ago, Woodinblack said:

You say that but I have been surprised about how many guitarists I have met who genuinely don't notice when they are out of tune. I don't know it happens

Perhaps they've wrecked their hearing by standing close to crazily loud amps for too long... I find a heavily treated, distorted or very loud sound can make it more difficult to discern pitch, probably because of all the overtones, harmonics and other dirt present. I used to notice that if I went outside the hall or put my fingers in my ears at a loud gig, the sound appeared to drop in pitch.

It appears that most people can discern pitch differences. Few seem to be completely tone deaf. I've met a couple over the course of 60+ years. When they attempt to sing, their voices go up and down like an air raid siren as they hunt for and never find the note.

What does vary a lot is the acuteness of ability to discern pitch differences. Some seem to find semitones tricky and once you get into microtones, a lot of people struggle. Back in the good old days of vinyl records, I had to return a record deck to a shop because it was running slow (it didn't have fine speed adjustment). It was playing records less than a semitone flat, but it drove me up the wall. I couldn't convince the shop staff when we listened to it playing and compared it to another that there was any difference. They exchanged it for me, but I could tell they were humouring me.

On another occasion, I was at the old Virgin Townhouse studios one evening and one of the cutting engineers, who I was friendly with, asked for my help. He had a master disc, which the band had rejected because it didn't sound right. He couldn't work out why. The band couldn't tell him what was wrong, just that it didn't sound "right". They had given him a tape of a rough mix the studio engineer had made for them and told him they wanted it to sound like that. I asked him to play the rough mix and immediately noticed it was a smidgeon higher in pitch. The difference was slight, but it was there. He couldn't hear it.

We played the master tape and the rough mix together and I adjusted the varispeed to make the master play at the same pitch. He cut a fresh master disc and told me when we spoke a couple of days later that the band had been happy with it.

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10 hours ago, Woodinblack said:

Have you don't one of those anscestry.com DNA tests, just to check if she has bolivian roots?

But to be fair, this stuff is so much easier to learn when you are a kid.

Its important to let her listen to the notes together to show how they sound, like C & D together, not great, tense. C&E, thats ok, C&G thats ok, and then C&C, they sound like they are supposed to be together, like the same thing.

Well, depending on the anscestry.com results obvs.

But would you be letting her hear that c and d together sound tense , or teaching her that c and d sound tense? Other words natural or cultural?

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On 24/09/2020 at 23:37, itu said:

We use approximately equally tempered scale, while there are many others that sound better with certain instruments.

At the risk of seeming picky, we use a precisely equally tempered scale: each note in the scale is 21/12  times the frequency of the one below it. Strictly speaking it's a compromise (all the notes in an octave, apart from the root note and the octave itself, are slightly adrift from the harmonic purity that characterises scales based more closely on the harmonic series. We use it because it sidesteps the numerous issues commonly associated with those earlier scale types such as the Pythagorean series (which most will know as the cycle of fifths) and the Just scale). In practice there are indeed particular issues with implementing the scale on different types of instruments, but the equal temperament scale is the standard temperament for most of the music we hear.

To address the OP's question more directly, the notes in the equal temperament scale are learned, to the point where we rarely even notice the harmonic anomalies inherent in its structure. It is worth pointing out that very early western music didn't have the octave as a fundamental element of the scale structure the way we do today. Ancient Greek music (thought of as the birthplace of the western musical tradition) had scales organised differently to the way we do it. The Greeks knew and used the octave in their music, but because of the way the musical structures were organised it didn't have the importance we attach to it.

TL:DR hearing the octave is an acquired skill. For the type of music we play it lies at the very heart of the way we work, which means that being able to recognise it is essential to our approach. In a situation where it isn't essential or isn't used (as is the case for most of the scales used in the ancient Greek approach), it may not be necessary to know about it.

There is an interesting little sideline to this:

The Pythagorean scale, based as it is on successive applications of the ratios 3/2 and 2/3, and hence considered the purest scale in terms of adherence to the natural harmonic series and the standard scale type in early western music for hundreds of years, can't be used to generate an exact octave. There is no power of 3 that is exactly twice any power of 2, and vice versa. As a result, being able to complete the scale requires a well-developed notion of the octave as an interval. In truth I'm not entirely sure how this feeds into the current discussion, but it's interesting nonetheless.

EDIT TO ADD: Here's a couple references on the subject of temperaments:

Wikipedia

Early Music Sources (YouTube)

Edited by leftybassman392
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3 hours ago, Dan Dare said:

It appears that most people can discern pitch differences. Few seem to be completely tone deaf. I've met a couple over the course of 60+ years. When they attempt to sing, their voices go up and down like an air raid siren as they hunt for and never find the note.

Well, thats the same with my singing, but not because I can't hear it :D

3 hours ago, Dan Dare said:

What does vary a lot is the acuteness of ability to discern pitch differences. Some seem to find semitones tricky and once you get into microtones, a lot of people struggle. Back in the good old days of vinyl records, I had to return a record deck to a shop because it was running slow (it didn't have fine speed adjustment). It was playing records less than a semitone flat, but it drove me up the wall. I couldn't convince the shop staff when we listened to it playing and compared it to another that there was any difference. They exchanged it for me, but I could tell they were humouring me.

You could just get those turntable mats with the pattern on it, and then look at it under electric light and you would see if it was running slow. 

I always had a problem with the track 'jane' by jefferson starship - I was given it as a single but the hole wasnt quite central, so the intro had a wow of about a tone!

 

3 hours ago, Nail Soup said:

But would you be letting her hear that c and d together sound tense , or teaching her that c and d sound tense? Other words natural or cultural?

Natural. I used to believe that you could teach these things, but I am now coming round to the idea that you can't teach that stuff later in life. You can be shown it and have it pointed out, but if you don't hear it yourself, noone can persuade you to hear it.

1 hour ago, leftybassman392 said:

 In practice there are indeed particular issues with implementing the scale on different types of instruments, but the equal temperament scale is the standard temperament for most of the music we hear.

And not all instruments do we bother with. And sometimes it is not desirable. But much longer subject!

 

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13 hours ago, leftybassman392 said:

At the risk of seeming picky, we use a precisely equally tempered scale: each note in the scale is 21/12  times the frequency of the one below it. Strictly speaking it's a compromise (all the notes in an octave, apart from the root note and the octave itself, are slightly adrift from the harmonic purity that characterises scales based more closely on the harmonic series.

I am very aware of the theory and temperaments as well as scales. At the risk of being picky, we try to utilise mathematically correct tempered scale, but there aren't too many instruments that actually use it per se. The base is there, but the usage is not. The exactly tempered acoustic piano sounds ridiculously bad, and many stringed instruments are everything but tempered. I am sure you know Pythagorean comma et al. and you get my point. As a bassist my instrument is tuned slightly low. Not many cents, but still. My tuner (Peterson SAM) has this option.

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1 hour ago, itu said:

At the risk of being picky, we try to utilise mathematically correct tempered scale, but there aren't too many instruments that actually use it per se. The base is there, but the usage is not.

Indeed. A point I made at the end of my first paragraph as I recall. ;)

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On 24/09/2020 at 18:58, solo4652 said:

In the latest edition of The Psychologist - the magazine of the British Psychological Society - is a short article in the research section that discusses whether pitch perception is a universal human phenomenon. I'll try to paraphrase it:

"In Western music, the octave system is mathematically based - move up an octave, and a given note doubles in frequency. Perhaps Western music has come to use this system because it relates to the way sound waves physically stimulate the cochlea in the inner ear. In other words, there's something biologically fundamental, and universal, about the way we perceive pitch. But, is this true for non-Western music?

In 2019, a team from the Max Planck institute revealed that a remote group of people living in the Bolivian rainforest doesn't process pitch in this way. The Bolivians don't perceive similarities between two notes an octave apart.

This work adds to other research, notably in vision and smell, revealing that, while all humans possess the same hardware, culture influences our sensory perceptions."

I thought that was rather interesting.

 

Any chance of a,link,to the article? (If available online obviously). It is an area that has fascinated me for many years. There are many aspects beyond simple pitch recognition , for example why do so many people find repeated pentatonic phrases so enjoyable? Why do we love some music and hate other? 

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18 hours ago, Woodinblack said:

You could just get those turntable mats with the pattern on it, and then look at it under electric light and you would see if it was running slow. 

I always had a problem with the track 'jane' by jefferson starship - I was given it as a single but the hole wasnt quite central, so the intro had a wow of about a tone!

I have an old Garrard 401 now, which has the strobe speed indicator cast into the rim of the platter.

That record sounds painful. If you want to really squirm, listen to the flute solo on California Dreaming. It's just slightly flat all the way through. Always hated it when I was younger. Used to have to turn the radio down whenever it came on.

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1 hour ago, Dan Dare said:

I have an old Garrard 401 now, which has the strobe speed indicator cast into the rim of the platter.

I can't remember what mine was but it also had a strobe.

1 hour ago, Dan Dare said:

That record sounds painful. If you want to really squirm, listen to the flute solo on California Dreaming. It's just slightly flat all the way through. Always hated it when I was younger. Used to have to turn the radio down whenever it came on.

Yes, the flute on that used to annoy me a lot too. I guess they didn't bother redoing things back then. 

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15 hours ago, T-Bay said:

Any chance of a,link,to the article? (If available online obviously). It is an area that has fascinated me for many years. There are many aspects beyond simple pitch recognition , for example why do so many people find repeated pentatonic phrases so enjoyable? Why do we love some music and hate other? 

Here's the link: https://thepsychologist.bps.org.uk/volume-33/october-2020/which-human-experiences-are-universal

Edited by solo4652
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11 hours ago, Dan Dare said:

..listen to the flute solo on California Dreaming. It's just slightly flat all the way through. Always hated it when I was younger.

Boney M had many ear cracking songs, Paul Simon's Diamonds on the soles of her shoes sounds always strange.

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