Can Playing A Piano Influence Our Perception Of Pitch In Melodies?

14 Sep

One unique field of music psychology is attempting to understand the complex relationship between music perception and performance.  In an older study, Repp and Knoblich (2009) used the “tritone paradox” discovered by Diana Deutsch (1986) to evaluate whether a musican’s association with the ascending and descending layout of a keyboard, could influence the perception of ambiguous relative-pitch relationships.  For example, tritone pairs can be perceived as both ascending and descending depending upon the listener.  Try it out for yourself, and then have a friend rate the pairs.  Find any differences?

Despite that the Repp and Knoblich study did find an “action direction effect” (when the subjects played the tritone pair on MIDI keyboard, it correlated with whether the subjects heard pairs as ascending or descending), it was undecided whether this correlation reflected causation.  Rebb and Knoblich theorized that the subjects might not have perceived the pitches as a result of the keyboard layout or “action direction,” but rather that the results could be attributed to a conscious analysis of how they pairs should sound after playing an ascending or descending direction on the MIDI keyboard.

Recently, Bruno H. Repp and Robert M. Goehrke expanded on this previous study, further investigating whether action direction or playing the piano in a certain direction could influence pitch perception.  The subjects were 12 graduate and undergraduate students at Yale, who all had advanced piano playing abilities.  12 tritone pairs were created and modified with the addition of a third note that was +/- three semitones from tone #1 in each group (for ex: B – F – G# or B – F – D).  The study had several conditions: during the active condition the subjects played a tritone melody on a MIDI keyboard that was notated for them.  The study design only allowed the correct keys to be playedback to the participants.  In the passive condition, the subjects just looked at the notation before hearing one of the ambiguous melodies.  All subjects were asked if the melody matched the notation displayed on the screen.  If they answered “no,” a graphic depiction of 6 alternative melodies were shown and the subjects were asked to select one that represented what they heard.

The study found no significant effect of playing the tritone melodies on the keyboard and the perception of ascent or descent (or rather, the researchers found no “action direction effect”).  However, they did find that all the notation trials did have an effect on perception.  The tritone pair was rated falling more often when the notation represented a falling tritone.  Additionally, the subjects perceived a falling tritone more often when the 3rd note in the ambiguous melody was a minor third below the 1st note.  It is curious on why these conditions resulted in the perception of frequent falling tritones.  Perhaps additionally research will lend insight.

Repp, B. & Goehrke, R. (2011). Music notation, but not action on a keyboard, influences pianists’ judgments of ambiguous melodies. Music Perception, 28(3), 315-320.

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