Neural differences between the processing of musical meaning conveyed by direction of pitch change and natural music in congenital amusia


Music is a unique communication system for human beings. Iconic musical meaning is one dimension of musical meaning, which emerges from musical information resembling sounds of objects, qualities of objects, or qualities of abstract concepts. The present study investigated whether congenital amusia, a disorder of musical pitch perception, impacts processing of iconic musical meaning. With a cross-modal semantic priming paradigm, target images were primed by semantically congruent or incongruent musical excerpts, which were characterized by direction (upward or downward) of pitch change (Experiment 1), or were selected from natural music (Experiment 2). Twelve Mandarin-speaking amusics and 12 controls performed a recognition (implicit) and a semantic congruency judgment (explicit) task while their EEG waveforms were recorded. Unlike controls, amusics failed to elicit an N400 effect when musical meaning was represented by direction of pitch change, regardless of the nature of the tasks (implicit versus explicit). However, the N400 effect in response to musical meaning in natural musical excerpts was observed for both groups in both types of tasks. These results indicate that amusics are able to process iconic musical meaning through multiple acoustic cues in natural musical excerpts, but not through direction of pitch change. This is the first study to investigate the processing of musical meaning in congenital amusia, providing evidence in support of the “melodic contour deafness hypothesis” with regard to iconic musical meaning processing in this disorder

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