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Cereb Cortex. 2013 Feb;23(2):249-54. doi: 10.1093/cercor/bhs003. Epub 2012 Feb 7.

Speech versus song: multiple pitch-sensitive areas revealed by a naturally occurring musical illusion.

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Department of Communication Sciences and Disorders, Auditory Neuroscience Laboratory, Northwestern University, Evanston, IL 60208, USA.


It is normally obvious to listeners whether a human vocalization is intended to be heard as speech or song. However, the 2 signals are remarkably similar acoustically. A naturally occurring boundary case between speech and song has been discovered where a spoken phrase sounds as if it were sung when isolated and repeated. In the present study, an extensive search of audiobooks uncovered additional similar examples, which were contrasted with samples from the same corpus that do not sound like song, despite containing clear prosodic pitch contours. Using functional magnetic resonance imaging, we show that hearing these 2 closely matched stimuli is not associated with differences in response of early auditory areas. Rather, we find that a network of 8 regions, including the anterior superior temporal gyrus (STG) just anterior to Heschl's gyrus and the right midposterior STG, respond more strongly to speech perceived as song than to mere speech. This network overlaps a number of areas previously associated with pitch extraction and song production, confirming that phrases originally intended to be heard as speech can, under certain circumstances, be heard as song. Our results suggest that song processing compared with speech processing makes increased demands on pitch processing and auditory-motor integration.

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