Do Zwicker Tones Evoke a Musical Pitch?

Hedwig E. Gockel, Robert P. Carlyon

It has been argued that musical pitch, i.e. pitch in its strictest sense, requires phase locking at the level of the auditory nerve. The aim of the present study was to assess whether a musical pitch can be heard in the absence of peripheral phase locking, using Zwicker tones (ZTs). A ZT is a faint, decaying tonal percept that arises after listening to a band-stop (notched) broadband noise. The pitch is within the frequency range of the notch. Several findings indicate that ZTs are unlikely to be produced mechanically at the level of the cochlea and, therefore, there is unlikely to be phase locking to ZTs in the auditory periphery. In stage I of the experiment, musically trained subjects adjusted the frequency, level, and decay time of an exponentially decaying sinusoid so that it sounded similar to the ZT they perceived following a broadband noise, for various notch positions. In stage II, subjects adjusted the frequency of a sinusoid so that its pitch was a specified musical interval below that of either a preceding ZT or a preceding sinusoid (as determined in stage I). Subjects selected appropriate frequency ratios for ZTs, although the standard deviations of the adjustments were larger for the ZTs than for the equally salient sinusoids by a factor of 1.1-2.2. The results suggest that a musical pitch may exist in the absence of peripheral phase locking.