Enhanced brainstem encoding predicts musicians' perceptual advantages with pitch


Important to Western tonal music is the relationship between pitches both within and between musical chords; melody and harmony are generated by combining pitches selected from the fixed hierarchical scales of music. It is of critical importance that musicians have the ability to detect and discriminate minute deviations in pitch in order to remain in tune with other members of their ensemble. Event-related potentials indicate that cortical mechanisms responsible for detecting mistuning and violations in pitch are more sensitive and accurate in musicians as compared with non-musicians. The aim of the present study was to address whether this superiority is also present at a subcortical stage of pitch processing. Brainstem frequency-following responses were recorded from musicians and non-musicians in response to tuned (i.e. major and minor) and detuned (±4% difference in frequency) chordal arpeggios differing only in the pitch of their third. Results showed that musicians had faster neural synchronization and stronger brainstem encoding for defining characteristics of musical sequences regardless of whether they were in or out of tune. In contrast, non-musicians had relatively strong representation for major/minor chords but showed diminished responses for detuned chords. The close correspondence between the magnitude of brainstem responses and performance on two behavioral pitch discrimination tasks supports the idea that musicians' enhanced detection of chordal mistuning may be rooted at pre-attentive, sensory stages of processing. Findings suggest that perceptually salient aspects of musical pitch are not only represented at subcortical levels but that these representations are also enhanced by musical experience. © 2010 The Authors. European Journal of Neuroscience © 2010 Federation of European Neuroscience Societies and Blackwell Publishing Ltd.

Publication Title

European Journal of Neuroscience