Sentence pitch change detection in the native and unfamiliar language in musicians and non-musicians : Behavioral, electrophysiological and psychoacoustic study

Deguchi C., Boureux M., Sarlo M., Besson M., Grassi M., Schön D., Colombo L. (2012) Sentence pitch change detection in the native and unfamiliar language in musicians and non-musicians : Behavioral, electrophysiological and psychoacoustic study. Brain Research, 1455, 75-89. doi:10.1016/j.brainres.2012.03.034.


Previous ERP studies have shown that musicians detect a pitch change in spoken sentences better than non-musicians in both native (French, Schön et al., 2004) and unfamiliar (Portuguese, Marques et al., 2007) language. The aim of the present study was to further investigate differences between musicians and non-musicians in processing pitch changes in spoken sentences. To study the effects of familiarity of intonational contour and of the presence of meaningful context, behavioral and electrophysiological data from Italian musicians and non-musicians were compared in a pitch incongruity detection task using sentences in the native (Italian) and foreign (French) language and in jabberwocky (meaningless sentences formed by pseudowords). Moreover, to examine whether these differences depend on enhanced auditory sensitivity to pitch, the frequency discrimination threshold (FDT) for tones was obtained using a psychophysical procedure. Musicians were more accurate than non-musicians in detecting small pitch changes in all languages showing a smaller response bias, as well as much lower FDTs than non-musicians. The ERP data revealed shorter latencies of a late positivity over parietal sites in musicians than in nonmusicians for weak and strong incongruities. Overall results confirmed musicians’ advantage in detection of subtle pitch changes not only with tones but also with speech sentences in both native and unfamiliar languages. Such effect appears to emerge from more efficient pitch analysis trained by musical experience.