In four experiments, we investigated the influence of timbre on perceived interval size. In Experiment 1, musically untrained participants heard two successive tones and rated the pitch distance between them. Tones were separated by six or seven semitones and varied in timbre. Pitch changes were accompanied by a congruent timbre change (e.g., ascending interval involving a shift from a dull to a bright timbre), an incongruent timbre change (e.g., ascending interval involving a shift from a bright to a dull timbre), or no timbre change. Ratings of interval size were strongly influenced by timbre. The six-semitone interval with a congruent timbre change was perceived to be larger than the seven-semitone interval with an incongruent timbre change (interval illusion). Experiment 2 revealed similar effects for musically trained participants. In Experiment 3, participants compared the size of two intervals presented one after the other. Effects of timbre were again observed, including evidence of an interval illusion. Experiment 4 confirmed that timbre manipulations did not distort the perceived pitch of tones. Changes in timbre can expand or contract the perceived size of intervals without distorting individual pitches. We discuss processes underlying interval size perception and their relation to pitch perception mechanisms.
Russo, Frank A. and Thompson, William F., "An interval-size illusion: The influence of timbre on the perceived size of melodic intervals" (2005). Psychology Publications and Research. Paper 8.