Hearing in noise is a core problem in audition, and a challenge for hearing-impaired listeners, yet the underlying mechanisms are poorly understood. We explored whether harmonic frequency relations, a signature property of many communication sounds, aid hearing in noise. We measured detection thresholds in noise for tones and speech synthesized to have harmonic or inharmonic spectra. Harmonic signals were consistently easier to detect than otherwise identical inharmonic signals. Harmonicity also improved discrimination of sounds in noise. In contrast to other documented effects of harmonicity, harmonic detection advantages were comparable in musicians and non-musicians. The results show that harmonicity is critical for hearing in noise, demonstrating a previously unappreciated aspect of auditory scene analysis. The consistency of the effect across synthetic and natural stimuli, as well as across musical expertise, suggests its importance in everyday hearing.
bioRxiv Subject Collection: Neuroscience