Stephen, McAdams, Etienne Thoret, Grace Wang, and Marcel Montrey.
Timbre provides an important cue to identify musical instruments. Many timbral attributes covary with other parameters like pitch. This study explores listeners’ ability to construct categories of instrumental sound sources from sounds that vary in pitch. Nonmusicians identified 11 instruments from the woodwind, brass, percussion, and plucked and bowed string families. In experiment 1, they were trained to identify instruments playing a pitch of C4, and in experiments 2 and 3, they were trained with a five-tone sequence (F#3–F#4), exposing them to the way timbre varies with pitch. Participants were required to reach a threshold of 75% correct identification in training. In the testing phase, successful listeners heard single tones (experiments 1 and 2) or three-tone sequences from (A3–D#4) (experiment 3) across each instrument’s full pitch range to test their ability to generalize identification from the learned sound(s). Identification generalization over pitch varies a great deal across instruments. No significant differences were found between single-pitch and multi-pitch training or testing conditions. Identification rates can be predicted moderately well by spectrograms or modulation spectra. These results suggest that listeners use the most relevant acoustical invariance to identify musical instrument sounds, also using previous experience with the tested instruments.