Pitch Discrimination in Musicians and Non-Musicians: Effects of Harmonic Resolvability and Processing Effort

Federica Bianchi, Sébastien Santurette, Dorothea Wendt, Torsten Dau

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Musicians typically show enhanced pitch discrimination abilities compared to non-musicians. The present study investigated this perceptual enhancement behaviorally and objectively for resolved and unresolved complex tones to clarify whether the enhanced performance in musicians can be ascribed to increased peripheral frequency selectivity and/or to a different processing effort in performing the task. In a first experiment, pitch discrimination thresholds were obtained for harmonic complex tones with fundamental frequencies (F0s) between 100 and 500 Hz, filtered in either a low- or a high-frequency region, leading to variations in the resolvability of audible harmonics. The results showed that pitch discrimination performance in musicians was enhanced for resolved and unresolved complexes to a similar extent. Additionally, the harmonics became resolved at a similar F0 in musicians and non-musicians, suggesting similar peripheral frequency selectivity in the two groups of listeners. In a follow-up experiment, listeners’ pupil dilations were measured as an indicator of the required effort in performing the same pitch discrimination task for conditions of varying resolvability and task difficulty. Pupillometry responses indicated a lower processing effort in the musicians versus the non-musicians, although the processing demand imposed by the pitch discrimination task was individually adjusted according to the behavioral thresholds. Overall, these findings indicate that the enhanced pitch discrimination abilities in musicians are unlikely to be related to higher peripheral frequency selectivity and may suggest an enhanced pitch representation at more central stages of the auditory system in musically trained listeners.
Original languageEnglish
JournalJ A R O
Issue number1
Pages (from-to)69-79
Number of pages11
Publication statusPublished - 2016

Bibliographical note

Copyright: 2015 The Author(s). This article is published with open access at Springerlink.com.


  • Pitch discrimination
  • Resolved complex tones
  • Unresolved complex tones
  • Musicians
  • Pupillometry
  • Processing effort

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