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WIREs Cogn Sci
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Psychology of auditory perception

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Audition is often treated as a ‘secondary’ sensory system behind vision in the study of cognitive science. In this review, we focus on three seemingly simple perceptual tasks to demonstrate the complexity of perceptual–cognitive processing involved in everyday audition. After providing a short overview of the characteristics of sound and their neural encoding, we present a description of the perceptual task of segregating multiple sound events that are mixed together in the signal reaching the ears. Then, we discuss the ability to localize the sound source in the environment. Finally, we provide some data and theory on how listeners categorize complex sounds, such as speech. In particular, we present research on how listeners weigh multiple acoustic cues in making a categorization decision. One conclusion of this review is that it is time for auditory cognitive science to be developed to match what has been done in vision in order for us to better understand how humans communicate with speech and music. WIREs Cogni Sci 2011 2 479–489 DOI: 10.1002/wcs.123

Figure 1.

The three characteristics that define a sine‐wave sound. Each of the three graphs shows two sounds' air pressure changes as a function of time. (a) The two sounds differ in frequency, with the sound illustrated by the solid line cycling between periods of higher and lower air pressure at a lower rate, or frequency, than the sound shown by the dotted line. The two sounds in (b) have the same frequency, but differ in amplitude; the sound illustrated by the solid line elicits greater changes in air pressure and has greater amplitude. The two sounds in (c) have the same frequency and amplitude, but differ in phase.

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Figure 2.

Spectra for a flute and clarinet playing the same note. The lines represent the amplitude and frequency of sine waves that would create each sound (if the sound were stable in time). Each sound is composed of a fundamental frequency (f0) and harmonics at multiples of the fundamental frequency, highlighted by the arrows in the graph. Note that there are differences in the relative amplitude of different harmonics for flute versus clarinet. This contributes to the timbre, or quality, of the sound and differentiates the sounds of a flute and a clarinet playing the same note.

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Figure 3.

Distributions of two arbitrary, novel sound categories. Each dot represents one sound; filled dots comprise one category and open dots define the other. Listeners learned to categorize these novel sounds as ‘A’ or ‘B’. Although either of the dimensions could be used to differentiate the categories, listeners relied primarily upon the center frequency (CF) dimension.56

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