Detecting surface changes in a familiar tune: exploring pitch, tempo and timbre

Abstract

Humans recognize a melody independently of whether it is played on a piano or a violin, faster or slower, or at higher or lower frequencies. Much of the way in which we engage with music relies in our ability to normalize across these surface changes. Despite the uniqueness of our music faculty, there is the possibility that key aspects in music processing emerge from general sensitivities already present in other species. Here we explore whether other animals react to surface changes in a tune. We familiarized the animals (Long–Evans rats) with the “Happy Birthday” tune on a piano. We then presented novel test items that included changes in pitch (higher and lower octave transpositions), tempo (double and half the speed) and timbre (violin and piccolo). While the rats responded differently to the familiar and the novel version of the tune when it was played on novel instruments, they did not respond differently to the original song and its novel versions that included octave transpositions and changes in tempo.