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Neuroscience. 2015 Oct 1;305:384-92. doi: 10.1016/j.neuroscience.2015.08.010. Epub 2015 Aug 8.

Tone-language speakers show hemispheric specialization and differential cortical processing of contour and interval cues for pitch.

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School of Communication Sciences and Disorders, University of Memphis, TN 38152, USA; Institute for Intelligent System, University of Memphis, TN 38152, USA. Electronic address:
School of Communication Sciences and Disorders, University of Memphis, TN 38152, USA.


Electrophysiological studies demonstrate that the neural coding of pitch is modulated by language experience and the linguistic relevance of the auditory input; both rightward and leftward asymmetries have been observed in the hemispheric specialization for pitch. In music, pitch is encoded using two primary features: contour (patterns of rises and falls) and interval (frequency separation between tones) cues. Recent evoked potential studies demonstrate that these "global" (contour) and "local" (interval) aspects of pitch are processed automatically (but bilaterally) in trained musicians. Here, we examined whether alternate forms of pitch expertise, namely, tone-language experience (i.e., Chinese), influence the early detection of contour and intervallic deviations within ongoing pitch sequences. Neuroelectric mismatch negativity (MMN) potentials were recorded in Chinese speakers and English-speaking nonmusicians in response to continuous pitch sequences with occasional global or local deviations in the ongoing melodic stream. This paradigm allowed us to explore potential cross-language differences in the hemispheric weighting for contour and interval processing of pitch. Chinese speakers showed differential pitch encoding between hemispheres not observed in English listeners; Chinese MMNs revealed a rightward bias for contour processing but a leftward hemispheric laterality for interval processing. In contrast, no asymmetries were observed in the English group. Collectively, our findings suggest tone-language experience sensitizes auditory brain mechanisms for the detection of subtle global/local pitch changes in the ongoing auditory stream and exaggerates functional asymmetries in pitch processing between cerebral hemispheres.


Mandarin Chinese; auditory event-related potentials (ERPs); hemispheric laterality; melody perception; mismatch negativity (MMN)

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