Correct tonotopic representation is necessary for complex pitch perception

Andrew J. Oxenham, Joshua G.W. Bernstein, Hector Penagos

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

198 Scopus citations


The ability to extract a pitch from complex harmonic sounds, such as human speech, animal vocalizations, and musical instruments, is a fundamental attribute of hearing. Some theories of pitch rely on the frequency-to-place mapping, or tonotopy, in the inner ear (cochlea), but most current models are based solely on the relative timing of spikes in the auditory nerve. So far, it has proved to be difficult to distinguish between these two possible representations, primarily because temporal and place information usually covary in the cochlea. In this study, "transposed stimuli" were used to dissociate temporal from place information. By presenting the temporal information of low-frequency sinusoids to locations in the cochlea tuned to high frequencies, we found that human subjects displayed poor pitch perception for single tones. More importantly, none of the subjects was able to extract the fundamental frequency from multiple low-frequency harmonics presented to high-frequency regions of the cochlea. The experiments demonstrate that tonotopic representation is crucial to complex pitch perception and provide a new tool in the search for the neural basis of pitch.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1421-1425
Number of pages5
JournalProceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America
Issue number5
StatePublished - Feb 3 2004


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