Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience
Neural representation of pitch is influenced by lifelong experiences with music and language at both cortical and subcortical levels of processing. The aim of this article is to determine whether neural plasticity for pitch representation at the level of the brainstem is dependent upon specific dimensions of pitch contours that commonly occur as part of a native listener's language experience. Brainstem frequency following responses (FFRs) were recorded from Chinese and English participants in response to four Mandarin tonal contours presented in a nonspeech context in the form of iterated rippled noise. Pitch strength (whole contour, 250 msec; 40-msec segments) and pitch-tracking accuracy (whole contour) were extracted from the FFRs using autocorrelation algorithms. Narrow band spectrograms were used to extract spectral information. Results showed that the Chinese group exhibits smoother pitch tracking than the English group in three out of the four tones. Moreover, cross-language comparisons of pitch strength of 40-msec segments revealed that the Chinese group exhibits more robust pitch representation of those segments containing rapidly changing pitch movements across all four tones. FFR spectral data were complementary showing that the Chinese group exhibits stronger representation of multiple pitch-relevant harmonics relative to the English group across all four tones. These findings support the view that at early preattentive stages of subcortical processing, neural mechanisms underlying pitch representation are shaped by particular dimensions of the auditory stream rather than speech per se. Adopting a temporal correlation analysis scheme for pitch encoding, we propose that long-term experience sharpens the tuning characteristics of neurons along the pitch axis with enhanced sensitivity to linguistically relevant variations in pitch.