The rapid emergence of musical pitch structure in human cortex

Narayan Sankaran*, Thomas A. Carlson, William Forde Thompson

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleResearchpeer-review

8 Citations (Scopus)
38 Downloads (Pure)


In tonal music, continuous acoustic waveforms are mapped onto discrete, hierarchically arranged, internal representations of pitch. To examine the neural dynamics underlying this transformation, we presented male and female human listeners with tones embedded within a Western tonal context while recording their cortical activity using magnetoencephalography. Machine learning classifiers were then trained to decode different tones from their underlying neural activation patterns at each peristimulus time sample, providing a dynamic measure of their dissimilarity in cortex. Comparing the time-varying dissimilarity between tones with the predictions of acoustic and perceptual models, we observed a temporal evolution in the brain's representational structure. Whereas initial dissimilarities mirrored their fundamental-frequency separation, dissimilarities beyond 200 ms reflected the perceptual status of each tone within the tonal hierarchy of Western music. These effects occurred regardless of stimulus regularities within the context or whether listeners were engaged in a task requiring explicit pitch analysis. Lastly, patterns of cortical activity that discriminated between tones became increasingly stable in time as the information coded by those patterns transitioned from low-to-high level properties. Current results reveal the dynamics with which the complex perceptual structure of Western tonal music emerges in cortex at the timescale of an individual tone.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)2108-2118
Number of pages11
JournalJournal of Neuroscience
Issue number10
Publication statusPublished - 4 Mar 2020
Externally publishedYes


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