Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Neural correlates of musical consonance and dissonance

Bidelman and Krishnan make interesting observations suggesting that very fundamental low level sensory processing at the level of the brain stem may determine what sound intervals we find consonant or dissonant:
Consonant and dissonant pitch relationships in music provide the foundation of melody and harmony, the building blocks of Western tonal music. We hypothesized that phase-locked neural activity within the brainstem may preserve information relevant to these important perceptual attributes of music. To this end, we measured brainstem frequency-following responses (FFRs) from nonmusicians in response to the dichotic presentation of nine musical intervals that varied in their degree of consonance and dissonance. Neural pitch salience was computed for each response using temporally based autocorrelation and harmonic pitch sieve analyses. Brainstem responses to consonant intervals were more robust and yielded stronger pitch salience than those to dissonant intervals. In addition, the ordering of neural pitch salience across musical intervals followed the hierarchical arrangement of pitch stipulated by Western music theory. Finally, pitch salience derived from neural data showed high correspondence with behavioral consonance judgments (r = 0.81). These results suggest that brainstem neural mechanisms mediating pitch processing show preferential encoding of consonant musical relationships and, furthermore, preserve the hierarchical pitch relationships found in music, even for individuals without formal musical training. We infer that the basic pitch relationships governing music may be rooted in low-level sensory processing and that an encoding scheme that favors consonant pitch relationships may be one reason why such intervals are preferred behaviorally.

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