February 9, 2016 by Heather Zeiger
(Phys.org)—New research on how songbirds recognize a sound sequence calls into question the prevailing view that songbirds tend to rely on absolute pitch to recognize a song pattern as opposed to humans who tend to rely on relative pitch. Micah R. Bregman, Aniruddh D. Patel, and Timothy Q. Gentner from the
and San Diego
demonstrate through behavioral studies that starlings recognize a song pattern
by its absolute spectral shape. Their work appears in The Proceedings of
the National Academy of Sciences. Tufts University
Songbirds, like humans, can learn sound sequences. They share many common features with human perception of sound and the ability to learn new sounds. However, songbirds perceive sequences of sounds differently. Humans can recognize a sound sequence even if the pitch or timbre changes. For example, most people can recognize "Happy Birthday" whether it is played on an oboe or a trumpet or sung by an alto or soprano. Birds, on the other hand, would not recognize this sound sequence when variations in pitch or timbre occur.
The prevailing thought is that birds recognize song patterns based on the sound sequence's absolute pitch; however, some studies have indicated that there is more to the way birds perceive a sound sequence than pitch. To understand how birds perceive a sound sequence, Bregman, et al. devised an experiment to see how songbirds perceive tone sequences that systematically vary over time in both pitch and timbre.
First, they trained five starlings (Sturnus vulgaris) to accurately discern an ascending and descending sound sequence. The starlings were able to distinguish between the ascending and descending sound sequences with over 91% accuracy.