Standard-interval size affects interval-discrimination thresholds for pure-tone melodic pitch intervals

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Our ability to discriminate between pitch intervals of different sizes is not only an important aspect of speech and music perception, but also a useful means of evaluating higher-level pitch perception. The current study examined how pitch-interval discrimination was affected by the size of the intervals being compared, and by musical training. Using an adaptive procedure, pitch-interval discrimination thresholds were measured for sequentially presented pure-tone intervals with standard intervals of 1 semitone (minor second), 6 semitones (the tri-tone), and 7 semitones (perfect fifth). Listeners were classified into three groups based on musical experience: non-musicians had less than 3 years of informal musical experience, amateur musicians had at least 10 years of experience but no formal music theory training, and expert musicians had at least 12 years of experience with 1 year of formal ear training, and were either currently pursuing or had earned a Bachelor's degree as either a music major or music minor. Consistent with previous studies, discrimination thresholds obtained from expert musicians were significantly lower than those from other listeners. Thresholds also significantly varied with the magnitude of the reference interval and were higher for conditions with a 6- or 7-semitone standard than a 1-semitone standard. These data show that interval-discrimination thresholds are strongly affected by the size of the standard interval.

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