Creel, S. C. (In press). Ups and downs in auditory development: Preschoolers’ sensitivity to pitch contour and timbre. Cognitive Science Journal.
Much research has explored developing sound representations in language, but less work addresses developing representations of other sound patterns. This study examined preschool children’s musical representations using two different tasks: discrimination and sound–picture association. Melodic contour—a musically relevant property—and instrumental timbre, which is (arguably) less musically relevant, were tested. In Experiment 1, children failed to associate cartoon characters to melodies with maximally different pitch contours, with no advantage for melody preexposure. Experiment 2 also used different-contour melodies and found good discrimination, whereas association was at chance. Experiment 3 replicated Experiment 2, but with a large timbre change instead of a contour change. Here, discrimination and association were both excellent. Preschool-aged children may have stronger or more durable representations of timbre than contour, particularly in more difficult tasks. Reasons for weaker association of contour than timbre information are discussed, along with implications for auditory development.