Absolute and relative pitch processing in the human brain: neural and behavioral evidence
Brain Structure and Function
Pitch is a primary perceptual dimension of sounds and is crucial in music and speech perception. When listening to melodies, most humans encode the relations between pitches into memory using an ability called relative pitch (RP). A small subpopulation, almost exclusively musicians, preferentially encode pitches using absolute pitch (AP): the ability to identify the pitch of a sound without an external reference. In this study, we recruited a large sample of musicians with AP (AP musicians) and
... without AP (RP musicians). The participants performed a pitch-processing task with a Listening and a Labeling condition during functional magnetic resonance imaging. General linear model analysis revealed that while labeling tones, AP musicians showed lower blood oxygenation level-dependent (BOLD) signal in the inferior frontal gyrus and the presupplementary motor area-brain regions associated with working memory, language functions, and auditory imagery. At the same time, AP musicians labeled tones more accurately suggesting that AP might be an example of neural efficiency. In addition, using multivariate pattern analysis, we found that BOLD signal patterns in the inferior frontal gyrus and the presupplementary motor area differentiated between the groups. These clusters were similar, but not identical compared to the general linear model-based clusters. Therefore, information about AP and RP might be present on different spatial scales. While listening to tones, AP musicians showed increased BOLD signal in the right planum temporale which may reflect the matching of pitch information with internal templates and corroborates the importance of the planum temporale in AP processing. Taken together, AP and RP musicians show diverging frontal activations during Labeling and, more subtly, differences in right auditory activation during Listening. The results of this study do not support the previously reported importance of the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex in associating a pitch with its label.