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Auditory scene analysis: the sweet music of ambiguity.


ABSTRACT: In this review paper aimed at the non-specialist, we explore the use that neuroscientists and musicians have made of perceptual illusions based on ambiguity. The pivotal issue is auditory scene analysis (ASA), or what enables us to make sense of complex acoustic mixtures in order to follow, for instance, a single melody in the midst of an orchestra. In general, ASA uncovers the most likely physical causes that account for the waveform collected at the ears. However, the acoustical problem is ill-posed and it must be solved from noisy sensory input. Recently, the neural mechanisms implicated in the transformation of ambiguous sensory information into coherent auditory scenes have been investigated using so-called bistability illusions (where an unchanging ambiguous stimulus evokes a succession of distinct percepts in the mind of the listener). After reviewing some of those studies, we turn to music, which arguably provides some of the most complex acoustic scenes that a human listener will ever encounter. Interestingly, musicians will not always aim at making each physical source intelligible, but rather express one or more melodic lines with a small or large number of instruments. By means of a few musical illustrations and by using a computational model inspired by neuro-physiological principles, we suggest that this relies on a detailed (if perhaps implicit) knowledge of the rules of ASA and of its inherent ambiguity. We then put forward the opinion that some degree perceptual ambiguity may participate in our appreciation of music.

SUBMITTER: Pressnitzer D 

PROVIDER: S-EPMC3237025 | BioStudies | 2011-01-01T00:00:00Z

REPOSITORIES: biostudies

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