Uncertainty in tuning evaluation with low-register complex tones of orchestra instruments

Jussi Jaatinen*, Jukka Pätynen, Tapio Lokki

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleScientificpeer-review

2 Citations (Scopus)
61 Downloads (Pure)


The relationship between perceived pitch and harmonic spectrum in complex tones is ambiguous. In this study, 31 professional orchestra musicians participated in a listening experiment where they adjusted the pitch of complex low-register successively presented tones to unison. Tones ranged from A0 to A2 (27.6–110 Hz) and were derived from acoustic instrument samples at three different dynamic levels. Four orchestra instruments were chosen as sources of the stimuli; double bass, bass tuba, contrabassoon, and contrabass clarinet. In addition, a sawtooth tone with 13 harmonics was included as a synthetic reference stimulus. The deviation of subjects’ tuning adjustments from unison tuning was greatest for the lowest tones, but remained unexpectedly high also for higher tones, even though all participants had long experience in accurate tuning. Preceding studies have proposed spectral centroid and Terhardt’s virtual pitch theory as useful predictors of the influence of the envelope of a harmonic spectrum on the perceived pitch. However, neither of these concepts were supported by our results. According to the principal component analysis of spectral differences between the presented tone pairs, the contrabass clarinet-type spectrum, where every second harmonic is attenuated, lowered the perceived pitch of a tone compared with tones with the same fundamental frequency but a different spectral envelope. In summary, the pitches of the stimuli were perceived as undefined and highly dependent on the listener, spectrum, and dynamic level. Despite their high professional level, the subjects did not perceive a common, unambiguous pitch of any of the stimuli. The contrabass clarinet-type spectrum lowered the perceived pitch.
Original languageEnglish
Article number49
Number of pages13
JournalActa Acustica
Publication statusPublished - 19 Nov 2021
MoE publication typeA1 Journal article-refereed


  • pitch
  • low frequency harmonics
  • musical acoustics
  • perception


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