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Pitch perception in vocal learners: Fundamental shared components of pitch processing and biological relevance Open Access


Other title
black-capped chickadee
Type of item
Degree grantor
University of Alberta
Author or creator
Hoeschele, Marisa A
Supervisor and department
Sturdy, Christopher B (Psychology)
Examining committee member and department
Spetch, Marcia L (Psychology)
Gentner, Timothy (Psychology at University of California, San Diego)
Dickson, Clayton T (Psychology)
Pierce, W David (Sociology)
Department of Psychology

Date accepted
Graduation date
Doctor of Philosophy
Degree level
Pitch perception is important in both music and language perception in humans. Vocal learners, including humans, share the property of learning their vocalizations from a tutor when young. Similar behavioural and neural mechanisms underlying vocal production among different species of vocal learners makes it possible to study biological origins of language and music. Here the goal was to understand whether a songbird vocal learner, the black-capped chickadee, has similar pitch perception to humans. Humans generally rely more on relative pitch, the ability to detect the relationship among notes, when judging the pitch of stimuli (e.g., “minor 3rd”). Black-capped chickadees, however, generally rely more on absolute pitch, or the ability to detect a pitch without an external referent (e.g., “A” note), but are able to learn relative pitch rules. At the same time, this songbird has a relative pitch cue contained in their fee-bee song. In chapter 2, using a go/nogo operant paradigm, I assessed whether the relative pitch cue from the fee-bee song is an important biologically relevant stimulus that influences the perception of pitch in this species. I found that the pitch interval from the fee-bee song was discriminated more quickly and with a higher level of expertise than other pitch intervals. Then, in chapters 3-5, using a similar operant paradigm in humans, I compared first the relative and then the absolute pitch strategies of humans to chickadees. In chapter 3, I found that both humans and chickadees showed similar response patterns to the relative pitch of chords. Both species also transferred the discrimination to novel pitches. In chapters 4 and 5, I compared the absolute pitch strategies of the two species by pitting pitch height perception (log-linear assessment of frequency) against octave perception (treating notes separated by a doubling in frequency, e.g., two “A” notes in Western music, as being similar). I found that, while human participants showed strong evidence of octave perception, black-capped chickadees seem to rely on pitch height perception alone. Despite both species having successful pitch perception strategies, the strategies used to accomplish this appear to be quite different. The implications of these results are discussed.
Permission is hereby granted to the University of Alberta Libraries to reproduce single copies of this thesis and to lend or sell such copies for private, scholarly or scientific research purposes only. Where the thesis is converted to, or otherwise made available in digital form, the University of Alberta will advise potential users of the thesis of these terms. The author reserves all other publication and other rights in association with the copyright in the thesis and, except as herein before provided, neither the thesis nor any substantial portion thereof may be printed or otherwise reproduced in any material form whatsoever without the author's prior written permission.
Citation for previous publication
"Approximation to Uniform Gradients of Generalization by Monotone Transformations of Scale" by Roger N. Shepard. From Stimulus Generalization, D. I. Mostofsky (Ed.), Copyright (c) 1965 by the Board of Trustees of the Leland Stanford Jr. University, renewed 1993.Plomp, R. & Levelt, W. J. M. (1965). Tonal consonance and critical bandwidth. Journal of the Acoustical Society of America, 38, 548-560. Copyright 1965, Acoustical Society of AmericaHoeschele, M., Guillette, L.M., & Sturdy, C.B. (2012). Biological relevance of acoustic signal affects discrimination performance in a songbird. Animal Cognition, 15(4), 677-688.Hoeschele, M., Cook, R.G., Guillette, L.M., Brooks, D.I. & Sturdy, C.B. (2012). Black-capped chickadee (Poecile atricapillus) and human (Homo sapiens) chord discrimination. Journal of Comparative Psychology, 126(1), 57-67.Hoeschele, M., Weisman, R.G., & Sturdy, C.B. (accepted 13 August 2012). Pitch chroma discrimination, generalization and transfer tests of octave equivalence in humans. Attention, Perception, & Psychophysics, MS# PP-ORIG-12-057.R2

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