Temporal Order Perception: Acquired or Innate?

9 Jul

Many studies have attempted to understand how music training can affect music perception.  One of the current debates in music cognition is whether “temporal order perception,” (the ability to discriminate between the order of pitches) is an innate ability or learned.  Older studies discovered that it is difficult for human participants to perceive the temporal components of sounds that appear unrelated (white noise, random tones, ambient noise).  One study however, found that music training can actually help with these tasks, thus suggesting that temporal order perception might be a learned skill.  Christine K. Koh, Lola L. Cuddy and Lorna S. Jakobson wanted to take this observation further.  The trio investigated whether music training, pitch and temporal perception, and other cognitive tasks are related: how does music training influence our pitch and tempo perception?  Are other cognitive tasks affected by music training?

The study used the probe tone test paradigm.  Thirty-one students, with 0 to 14 years of music training, listened to a four-note melody in the keys of C major (C-E-C-G) and C minor (C-Eb-C-G).  The probe tone, a random note selected from the chromatic scale, was played to participants after the melody.  The listeners were then instructed to determine how well the probe tone fit into the context of the previously played melody.  The participants also took multiple cognitive tests that evaluated vocabulary / spatial ability, adult intelligence, and auditory perception (both pitch discrimination and temporal structure tasks).  These additional auditory tasks required participants to distinguish between different and matching pitches, and melodies that had the same or different structures (for example, in a 4 note sequence, notes 2 and 3 might be switched in variations of the original melody).

The results found no association between music training and the pitch perception tasks.  However, there was a robust finding between years of music training and temporal order perception.  The researchers argue these results suggest that temporal order perception might be an acquired ability and a result of exposure.  However, additional research is needed to see if there is a direct relationship between music training and temporal order perception.

Koh, C.K., Cuddy, L.L., & Jakobson, L.S. (2001). Associations and dissociations among music training, tonal and temporal order processing, and cognitive skills. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, 930, 386-388.


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