Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience
Neural encoding of pitch in the auditory brainstem is known to be shaped by long-term experience with language or music, implying that early sensory processing is subject to experience-dependent neural plasticity. In language, pitch patterns consist of sequences of continuous, curvilinear contours; in music, pitch patterns consist of relatively discrete, stair-stepped sequences of notes. The primary aim was to determine the influence of domain-specific experience (language vs. music) on the encoding of pitch in the brainstem. Frequency-following responses were recorded from the brainstem in native Chinese, English amateur musicians, and English nonmusicians in response to iterated rippled noise homologues of a musical pitch interval (major third; M3) and a lexical tone (Mandarin tone 2; T2) from the music and language domains, respectively. Pitch-tracking accuracy (whole contour) and pitch strength (50 msec sections) were computed from the brainstem responses using autocorrelation algorithms. Pitch-tracking accuracy was higher in the Chinese and musicians than in the nonmusicians across domains. Pitch strength was more robust across sections in musicians than in nonmusicians regardless of domain. In contrast, the Chinese showed larger pitch strength, relative to nonmusicians, only in those sections of T2 with rapid changes in pitch. Interestingly, musicians exhibited greater pitch strength than the Chinese in one section of M3, corresponding to the onset of the second musical note, and two sections within T2, corresponding to a note along the diatonic musical scale. We infer that experience-dependent plasticity of brainstem responses is shaped by the relative saliency of acoustic dimensions underlying the pitch patterns associated with a particular domain.