I read that the human ear perceives pitch as the logarithm of frequency, so the ear should sense that each note on the scale rises by the same amount. However, to me the higher notes in an octave seem much higher proportionately than the lower ones. I enjoy music and I'm told I have a good singing voice, so what's going on here? Is this a qualia effect where my subjective interpretation of a melody is different to others but we both agree on the objective sound?

For example if I keep adding small constant weights to my hand, my subjective feel is that the increase in load is linear. But with musical notes, the effect is not linear. My subjective feel of the change in pitch as notes go up through the octave is small at the bottom and large at the top.

  • Do you mean that with a same interval change (for example, a whole tone) you perceive it as a small change if executed in higher octaves, and bigger in lower? And, even considering this, do you still perceive an actual tone difference, or do you actually get a pitch change smaller than a tone on higher octaves and viceversa? Jun 22 at 2:37
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    that's interesting. I thought that you had issues with more distant intervals (eg. C3-D3 and C6-D6). What you're saying could suggest a "different" (more linear) perception of frequency difference, but that's just a guess. It could also be possible that you only have a different psychological perception that makes you "believe" that high pitch also means "bigger interval". You should probably do some experiments, like trying with equal changes of frequency: do you feel the same when listening to 400Hz->500Hz as you do from 500Hz->600Hz? Jun 22 at 3:04
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    Thanks @musicamante; I'll try that. It was compulsory at my high school for everyone to sing at church services. We had services 7 days a week so we got a lot of practice ! I found the higher notes in the octave physically harder to produce so maybe I'm confounding that remembered physical effort with pitch.
    – John D
    Jun 22 at 3:37
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    That could be an useful skill anyway: if you are able to get that "distance" it could also mean that you're probably also able to improve your performances after good (and, possibly, well guided) practice. Pitch precision is very hard to achieve for any instrument that doesn't have direct "mechanical" pitches like keyboards (pianos, organs, clavichords), fretted strings (standard guitars) and fixed pitch instruments (keyboard percussions, harp) - I'm obviously not considering tuning. If you have that kind of perception, it could be very helpful, as long as it's well trained. Jun 22 at 3:49
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    Pitch and loudness are both subjective. Frequency and intensity are objective measures of the related musical dimensions. Jun 22 at 7:28

@JohnD I think you've got the right diagnosis, if you're thinking in the context of vocal range. The comfortable range of the average, Joe-Schmoe untrained voice is less than 2 octaves, so within that restricted context, a whole tone is a big deal (and yes, a whole tone near the limits of your range is a bigger deal than in the middle). If you're asking not merely out of curiosity, but because you want to develop an accurate "ear" for intervals in the abstract... Well, there's a name for that pursuit! "Ear training" has been a thing for a long time, starting with Kodaly (well, I guess maybe starting with Guido of Arezzo, and probably not even him...). I'm a big proponent of the "moveable do" school of solfege; after a few years of singing every tonal tune with the tonic being "do" and the dominant being "so," not only do you get an innate sense for the distance of a fifth, but also for the function of the dominant and the tonic.

This isn't a skill you can learn by reading a book; it has to be lived. I imagine there are many worthwhile YouTube videos on the subject, or it could even be worthwhile to find a class you could sit in on at a music school or university.

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