New research, published in PLOS Computational Biology, offers insight into the neural underpinnings of musical timbre. Mounya Elhilali, of Johns Hopkins University and colleagues have used mathematical models based on experiments in both animals and humans to accurately predict sound source recognition and perceptual timbre judgments by human listeners.
A major contributor to our ability to analyze music and recognize instruments is the concept known as 'timbre'. Timbre is a hard-to-quantify concept loosely defined as everything in music that isn't duration, loudness or pitch. For instance, timbre comes into play when we are able to instantly decide whether a sound is coming from a violin or a piano.
The researchers at The John Hopkins University set out to develop a mathematical model that would simulate how the brain works when it receives auditory signals, how it looks for specific features and whether something is there that allows the brain to discern these different qualities.
The authors devised a computer model to accurately mimic how specific brain regions transform sounds into the nerve impulses that allow us to recognize the type of sounds we are listening to. The model was able to correctly identify which instrument was playing (out of a total of 13 instruments) to an accuracy rate of 98.7 percent.
The model mirrored how human listeners make judgment calls regarding timbre. The researchers asked 20 people to listen to two sounds played by different musical instruments. The listeners were then asked to rate how similar the sounds seemed. A violin and a cello are perceived as closer to each other than a violin and a flute. The researchers also found that wind and percussive instruments tend to overall be the most different from each other, followed by strings and percussions, then strings and winds. These subtle judgments of timbre quality were also reproduced by the computer model.
"There is much to be learned from how the human brain processes complex information such as musical timbre and translating this knowledge into improved computer systems and hearing technologies", Elhilali said.
Patil K, Pressnitzer D, Shamma S, Elhilali M (2012) Music in Our Ears: The Biological Bases of Musical Timbre Perception. PLoS Comput Biol 8(11):e1002759. doi:10.1371/journal.pcbi.1002759
Public Library of Science: http://www.plos.org
This press release was posted to serve as a topic for discussion. Please comment below. We try our best to only post press releases that are associated with peer reviewed scientific literature. Critical discussions of the research are appreciated. If you need help finding a link to the original article, please contact us on twitter or via e-mail.
Free-living songbirds show increased stress hormone levels when nesting under white street lights. But different light spectra may have different physiological effects as this study finds, suggesting that using street lights with specific colour spectra may mitigate effects of light pollution on wildlife
Scientists identify the condition aphantasia, in which people cannot create images in their head
The dust in our homes contains an average of 9,000 different types of fungi and bacteria, a study suggests.
A mosquito can bear up to 23 times its total body weight on each leg, which is crucial for landing on water – the insect's secret is way it stands
Tropical species with smaller geographical ranges are more likely to die out in a warming climate than those that can adapt by ‘invading’ new regions
Most people think of bacteria as germs, signs of filth, or unwanted bringers of disease. Slowly, that view …
The gloomy octopuses crowded at Jervis Bay, Australia, appear to spit and throw debris such as shell at each other in what could be an intentional use of weapons
Therapies based on hormones that make us more trusting enhance our natural placebo effect – a finding that could alter the way clinical trials are conducted
The blind, hairless babies born recently at Washington D.C.'s National Zoo are completely dependent on their mothers—who can sometimes accidentally crush them.
The poop-hoarding insects have an amazingly advanced internal GPS that allows them to navigate by day or night.