Listen to this short audio clip:
The clip plays two notes that are two full octaves apart. That’s a greater range than many people can produce vocally. It should be easy for anyone to tell the difference between these two notes, even when heard in isolation, right?
A team led by Ulrich Weger has found a scenario where people make systematic errors judging these two very different notes. While most people get the notes right most of the time, by introducing a wrinkle into the testing, Weger’s team could reliably induce errors and slower response times.
They asked 20 undergraduate students to listen to these notes repeatedly, responding as quickly as possible to identify the notes. What was the wrinkle? First they had to read a word on a computer screen and make a judgment about it. Each word had either a good meaning (e.g. kiss) or a bad meaning (e.g. dead). 150 milliseconds after the volunteer responded with “good” or “bad,” one of the two tones was played through headphones. Respondents had to press the the “1” key if they heard the high-frequency tone, and “5” if they heard the low-frequency tone. How’d they do? Here are the results:
After reading positive words, the students made significantly fewer errors identifying the high-pitch tone than the low-pitch tone. After reading negative words, the results were reversed: students were significantly more accurate identifying low-pitched tones than high-pitched tones, even though the tones were two full octaves apart! A similar pattern was found in reaction times: they were faster to identify the high-pitched tone after positive words, and slower to identify it after negative words.
Since these error rates are relatively low, the researchers repeated the experiment with tones that were more similar — about five notes apart on a traditional scale. The results were the same.
Weber’s team says their results are an example of affective priming. Good and bad words are metaphors for higher and lower things in space, just as high notes and low notes are. The students were led to think of “high” things when they read the positive words, which made it more difficult for them to identify the low notes.
The researchers were careful not to the terms “high” and “low” in the study at all, so they claim it’s clear that the results of the experiment show that the students in the study share a cultural bias to see negative words and low notes as physically low in space, and positive words and high notes as physically high in space.
Weger, U.W., Meier, B.P., Robinson, M.D., Inhoff, A.W. (2007). Things are sounding up: Affective influences on auditory tone perception. Psychonomic Bulletin & Review, 14(3), 517-521.