Tracking of pitch probabilities in congenital amusia

Diana Omigie, Marcus T Pearce, Lauren Stewart
Neuropsychologia 2012, 50 (7): 1483-93
Auditory perception involves not only hearing a series of sounds but also making predictions about future ones. For typical listeners, these predictions are formed on the basis of long-term schematic knowledge, gained over a lifetime of exposure to the auditory environment. Individuals with a developmental disorder known as congenital amusia show marked difficulties with music perception and production. The current study investigated whether these difficulties can be explained, either by a failure to internalise the statistical regularities present in music, or by a failure to consciously access this information. Two versions of a melodic priming paradigm were used to probe participants' abilities to form melodic pitch expectations, in an implicit and an explicit manner. In the implicit version (Experiment 1), participants made speeded, forced-choice discriminations concerning the timbre of a cued target note. In the explicit version (Experiment 2), participants used a 1-7 rating scale to indicate the degree to which the pitch of the cued target note was expected or unexpected. Target notes were chosen to have high or low probability in the context of the melody, based on the predictions of a computational model of melodic expectation. Analysis of the data from the implicit task revealed a melodic priming effect in both amusic and control participants whereby both groups showed faster responses to high probability than low probability notes rendered in the same timbre as the context. However, analysis of the data from the explicit task revealed that amusic participants were significantly worse than controls at using explicit ratings to differentiate between high and low probability events in a melodic context. Taken together, findings from the current study make an important contribution in demonstrating that amusic individuals track melodic pitch probabilities at an implicit level despite an impairment, relative to controls, when required to make explicit judgments in this regard. However the unexpected finding that amusics nevertheless are able to use explicit ratings to distinguish between high and low probability notes (albeit not as well as controls) makes a similarly important contribution in revealing a sensitivity to musical structure that has not previously been demonstrated in these individuals.

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