Helsingin yliopisto


Helsingin yliopiston verkkojulkaisut

University of Helsinki, Helsinki 2006

Cortical processing of musical pitch as reflected by behavioural and electrophysiological evidence

Elvira Brattico

Doctoral dissertation, November 2006.
University of Helsinki, Faculty of Behavioural Sciences, Department of Psychology, Cognitive Brain Research Unit.

In a musical context, the pitch of sounds is encoded according to domain-general principles not confined to music or even to audition overall but common to other perceptual and cognitive processes (such as multiple pattern encoding and feature integration), and to domain-specific and culture-specific properties related to a particular musical system only (such as the pitch steps of the Western tonal system). The studies included in this thesis shed light on the processing stages during which pitch encoding occurs on the basis of both domain-general and music-specific properties, and elucidate the putative brain mechanisms underlying pitch-related music perception.

Study I showed, in subjects without formal musical education, that the pitch and timbre of multiple sounds are integrated as unified object representations in sensory memory before attentional intervention. Similarly, multiple pattern pitches are simultaneously maintained in non-musicians' sensory memory (Study II). These findings demonstrate the degree of sophistication of pitch processing at the sensory memory stage, requiring neither attention nor any special expertise of the subjects.

Furthermore, music- and culture-specific properties, such as the pitch steps of the equal-tempered musical scale, are automatically discriminated in sensory memory even by subjects without formal musical education (Studies III and IV). The cognitive processing of pitch according to culture-specific musical-scale schemata hence occurs as early as at the sensory-memory stage of pitch analysis. Exposure and cortical plasticity seem to be involved in musical pitch encoding. For instance, after only one hour of laboratory training, the neural representations of pitch in the auditory cortex are altered (Study V). However, faulty brain mechanisms for attentive processing of fine-grained pitch steps lead to inborn deficits in music perception and recognition such as those encountered in congenital amusia (Study VI). These findings suggest that predispositions for exact pitch-step discrimination together with long-term exposure to music govern the acquisition of the automatized schematic knowledge of the music of a particular culture that even non-musicians possess.

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Last updated 07.11.2006

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