It is undisputed that the cognition of tonal music is primarily established by pitch relationships set within a tonal scheme such as a major or minor key. The corresponding notion—that absolute pitch and absolute key are largely inconsequential for tonal cognition—thus seems inevitable. Here, we challenge the latter notion, presenting data suggesting that absolute pitch and absolute key significantly modify listeners’ judgments of tonal fit and tonal tension. In two experiments extending the probe tone technique (as applied in Krumhansl & Kessler, 1982) participants heard a brief tonal context (a major triad in Experiment 1, a harmonic progression in Experiment 2) followed by individual probe tones, and rated how well each probe fitted the preceding context, as well as the musical tension conveyed by each probe. Two maximally distant key contexts, G major and D♭ major, were used in both experiments and in both tasks. Ratings revealed significant absolute pitch effects in both tasks, though in different ways. In the tonal fit task, diatonic pitches in G major were rated higher than those in D♭ major; in contrast, chromatic pitches were rated higher in D♭ major, compared to G. In the tension task, overall ratings were significantly higher for D♭ major contexts than for G major context (Experiment 1). Importantly, these effects reflect the occurrence frequency of pitch classes and keys in the tonal repertory: frequent pitch classes were rated as better fits than rarer ones, and a rarer key (D♭) rated tenser than a frequently-occurring key (G). Absolute pitch effects were most strongly manifested by participants without formal training, for whom the relative pitch effects of the tonal hierarchy were weak, and were stronger when tonal context was weaker (Experiment 1 as compared to Experiment 2). Results suggest that implicit absolute pitch perception, reflecting key and pitch class occurrence frequency, significantly affects tonal music processing; such absolute pitch effects may be activated principally when tonal perception or tonal cues are lacking.

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