Timbre influences chord discrimination in black-capped chickadees (Poecile atricapillus) but not humans (Homo sapiens)

Marisa Hoeschele, Robert G. Cook, Lauren M. Guillette, Allison H. Hahn, Christopher B. Sturdy*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

11 Citations (Scopus)


Timbre is an important attribute of sound both in music and nature. Previously, using an operant conditioning paradigm, we found that black-capped chickadees and humans show similar response patterns in discriminating triadic chords of the same timbre and transferred this discrimination to a novel key center (novel absolute pitch). The current study examined how varying the timbre of the chords influenced discrimination. Using a similar operant conditioning procedure, we trained humans (Experiment 1) and chickadees (Experiments 2 and 3) to discriminate a major chord from 6 other chord types that had semitone deviations from the major chord. The pattern of errors of the 2 species replicated our previous findings. We then tested participants with novel timbres. We found that humans readily transferred their discrimination to novel timbres, suggesting they were attending to triadic pitch relations. The chickadees failed to transfer to novel timbres, suggesting they were using a different strategy to perform the original chord discrimination. We conducted an acoustic analysis examining frequency ranges that are biologically relevant to chickadees. We found that the relative intensity within each chord of the frequencies used in black-capped chickadee song significantly correlated with chickadees' percent response during probe testing. In Experiment 3, we trained a new set of chickadees by including either expanded pitch or timbre training before testing. Although chickadees showed some transfer to novel chords following this expanded training, we found that neither type of expanded training helped the chickadees when probe tested with novel stimuli.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)387-401
Number of pages15
JournalJournal of Comparative Psychology
Issue number4
Publication statusPublished - Nov 2014


  • timbre perception
  • chord perception
  • black-capped chickadee
  • human
  • operant conditioning
  • SEX


Dive into the research topics of 'Timbre influences chord discrimination in black-capped chickadees (Poecile atricapillus) but not humans (Homo sapiens)'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this