To date, the underlying cognitive and neural mechanisms of absolute pitch (AP) have remained elusive. In the present fMRI study, we investigated verbal and tonal perception and working memory in musicians with and without absolute pitch. Stimuli were sine wave tones and syllables (names of the scale tones) presented simultaneously. Participants listened to sequences of five stimuli, and then rehearsed internally either the syllables or the tones. Finally participants indicated whether a test stimulus had been presented during the sequence. For an auditory stroop task, half of the tonal sequences were congruent (frequencies of tones corresponded to syllables which were the names of the scale tones) and half were incongruent (frequencies of tones did not correspond to syllables). Results indicate that first, verbal and tonal perception overlap strongly in the left superior temporal gyrus/sulcus (STG/STS) in AP musicians only. Second, AP is associated with the categorical perception of tones. Third, the left STG/STS is activated in AP musicians only for the detection of verbal-tonal incongruencies in the auditory stroop task. Finally, verbal labelling of tones in AP musicians seems to be automatic. Overall, a unique feature of AP appears to be the similarity between verbal and tonal perception.
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