Encoding of melody in the human auditory cortex

Melody is a core component of music in which discrete pitches are serially arranged to convey emotion and meaning. Perception varies along several pitch-based dimensions: (i) the absolute pitch of notes, (ii) the difference in pitch between successive notes, and (iii) the statistical expectation of each note given prior context. How the brain represents these dimensions and whether their encoding is specialized for music remains unknown. We recorded high-density neurophysiological activity directly from the human auditory cortex while participants listened to Western musical phrases. Pitch, pitch-change, and expectation were selectively encoded at different cortical sites, indicating a spatial map for representing distinct melodic dimensions. The same participants listened to spoken English, and we compared responses to music and speech. Cortical sites selective for music encoded expectation, while sites that encoded pitch and pitch-change in music used the same neural code to represent equivalent properties of speech. Findings reveal how the perception of melody recruits both music-specific and general-purpose sound representations.

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