Cortical auditory evoked potentials, including mismatch negativity (MMN) and P3a to pure tones, harmonic complexes, and speech syllables, were examined across groups of trained musicians and nonmusicians. Because of the extensive formal and informal auditory training received by musicians throughout their lifespan, it was predicted that these electrophysiological indicators of preattentive pitch discrimination and involuntary attention change would distinguish musicians from nonmusicians and provide insight regarding the influence of auditory training and experience on central auditory function.
A total of 102 (67 trained musicians, 35 nonmusicians) right-handed young women with normal hearing participated in three auditory stimulus conditions: pure tones (25 musicians/15 nonmusicians), harmonic tones (42 musicians/20 nonmusicians), and speech syllables (26 musicians/15 nonmusicians). Pure tone and harmonic tone stimuli were presented in multideviant oddball paradigms designed to elicit MMN and P3a. Each paradigm included one standard and two infrequently occurring deviants. For the pure tone condition, the standard pure tone was 1000 Hz, and the two deviant tones differed in frequency from the standard by either 1.5% (1015 Hz) or 6% (1060 Hz). The harmonic tone complexes were digitally created and contained a fundamental frequency (F0) and three harmonics. The amplitude of each harmonic was divided by its harmonic number to create a natural amplitude contour in the frequency spectrum. The standard tone was G4 (F0 = 392 Hz), and the two deviant tones differed in fundamental frequency from the standard by 1.5% (F0 = 386 Hz) or 6% (F0 = 370 Hz). The fundamental frequencies of the harmonic tones occur within the average female vocal range. The third condition to elicit MMN and P3a was designed for the presentation of speech syllables (/ba/ and /da/) and was structured as a traditional oddball paradigm (one standard/one infrequent deviant). Each speech stimulus was presented as a standard and a deviant in separate blocks. P1-N1-P2 was elicited before each oddball task by presenting each auditory stimulus alone in single blocks. All cortical auditory evoked potentials were recorded in a passive listening condition.
Incidental findings revealed that musicians had longer P1 latencies for pure tones and smaller P1 amplitudes for harmonic tones than nonmusicians. There were no P1 group differences for speech stimuli. Musicians compared with nonmusicians had shorter MMN latencies for all deviances (harmonic tones, pure tones, and speech). Musicians had shorter P3a latencies to harmonic tones and speech but not to pure tones. MMN and P3a amplitude were modulated by deviant frequency but not by group membership.
Formally trained musicians compared with nonmusicians showed more efficient neural detection of pure tones and harmonic tones; demonstrated superior auditory sensory-memory traces for acoustic features of pure tones, harmonic tones, and speech; and revealed enhanced sensitivity to acoustic changes of spectrally rich stimuli (i.e., harmonic tones and speech). Findings support a general influence of music training on central auditory function and illustrate experience-facilitated modulation of the auditory neural system.