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Front Psychol. 2013 May 13;4:264. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2013.00264. eCollection 2013.

The role of the auditory brainstem in processing musically relevant pitch.

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  • 1Institute for Intelligent Systems, University of Memphis Memphis, TN, USA ; School of Communication Sciences and Disorders, University of Memphis Memphis, TN, USA.


Neuroimaging work has shed light on the cerebral architecture involved in processing the melodic and harmonic aspects of music. Here, recent evidence is reviewed illustrating that subcortical auditory structures contribute to the early formation and processing of musically relevant pitch. Electrophysiological recordings from the human brainstem and population responses from the auditory nerve reveal that nascent features of tonal music (e.g., consonance/dissonance, pitch salience, harmonic sonority) are evident at early, subcortical levels of the auditory pathway. The salience and harmonicity of brainstem activity is strongly correlated with listeners' perceptual preferences and perceived consonance for the tonal relationships of music. Moreover, the hierarchical ordering of pitch intervals/chords described by the Western music practice and their perceptual consonance is well-predicted by the salience with which pitch combinations are encoded in subcortical auditory structures. While the neural correlates of consonance can be tuned and exaggerated with musical training, they persist even in the absence of musicianship or long-term enculturation. As such, it is posited that the structural foundations of musical pitch might result from innate processing performed by the central auditory system. A neurobiological predisposition for consonant, pleasant sounding pitch relationships may be one reason why these pitch combinations have been favored by composers and listeners for centuries. It is suggested that important perceptual dimensions of music emerge well before the auditory signal reaches cerebral cortex and prior to attentional engagement. While cortical mechanisms are no doubt critical to the perception, production, and enjoyment of music, the contribution of subcortical structures implicates a more integrated, hierarchically organized network underlying music processing within the brain.


auditory event-related potentials; auditory nerve; brainstem response; consonance and dissonance; frequency-following response (FFR); musical pitch perception; musical training; tonality

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