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

  • Author / Creator
    Hoeschele, Marisa A
  • 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.

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  • Degree
    Doctor of Philosophy
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    This thesis is made available by the University of Alberta Libraries with permission of the copyright owner solely for non-commercial purposes. This thesis, or any portion thereof, may not otherwise be copied or reproduced without the written consent of the copyright owner, except to the extent permitted by Canadian copyright law.
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  • Institution
    University of Alberta
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  • Supervisor / co-supervisor and their department(s)
  • Examining committee members and their departments
    • Gentner, Timothy (Psychology at University of California, San Diego)
    • Pierce, W David (Sociology)
    • Dickson, Clayton T (Psychology)
    • Spetch, Marcia L (Psychology)