Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience
In music, melodic information is thought to be encoded in two forms, a contour code (up/down pattern of pitch changes) and an interval code (pitch distances between successive notes). A recent study recording the mismatch negativity (MMN) evoked by pitch contour and interval deviations in simple melodies demonstrated that people with no formal music education process both contour and interval information in the auditory cortex automatically. However, it is still unclear whether musical experience enhances both strategies of melodic encoding. We designed stimuli to examine contour and interval information separately. In the contour condition there were eight different standard melodies (presented on 80% of trials), each consisting of five notes all ascending in pitch, and the corresponding deviant melodies (20%) were altered to descending on their final note. The interval condition used one five-note standard melody transposed to eight keys from trial to trial, and on deviant trials the last note was raised by one whole tone without changing the pitch contour. There was also a control condition, in which a standard tone (990.7 Hz) and a deviant tone (1111.0 Hz) were presented. The magnetic counterpart of the MMN (MMNm) from musicians and nonmusicians was obtained as the difference between the dipole moment in response to the standard and deviant trials recorded by magnetoencephalography. Significantly larger MMNm was present in musicians in both contour and interval conditions than in nonmusicians, whereas MMNm in the control condition was similar for both groups. The interval MMNm was larger than the contour MMNm in musicians. No hemispheric difference was found in either group. The results suggest that musical training enhances the ability to automatically register abstract changes in the relative pitch structure of melodies.