The present research employed an operant conditioning procedure typically used with infants to test noise masking of pure tones and tonal complexes in adults and in 7-month-old infants. Adults and infants were presented with either pure tones of 160 and 200 Hz or harmonic tonal complexes with pitches equivalent to 160 and 200 Hz. The tonal complexes did not contain energy at the fundamental frequency. After learning these tasks, subjects in the tonal complex group categorized spectrally varying tonal complexes according to the pitch of the missing fundamental. Stimuli were subsequently presented in combination with either a low- or a high-frequency noise. Both age groups successfully discriminated pure tones when combined with a high-frequency noise but not when combined with a low-frequency noise in the same frequency range as the pure tone. Infants, like adults, successfully categorized harmonic tonal complexes based on the pitch of the missing fundamental when those stimuli were combined with a low-frequency noise in the range of the missing fundamental but not when combined with a high-frequency noise which covered the frequency range of the harmonics themselves. These results suggest that infants rely primarily on a central process and not peripherally generated combination tones to hear the pitch of the missing fundamental.

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