Electrophysiological correlates of melodic processing in congenital amusia

Neuropsychologia. 2013 Aug;51(9):1749-62. doi: 10.1016/j.neuropsychologia.2013.05.010. Epub 2013 May 23.


Music listening involves using previously internalized regularities to process incoming musical structures. A condition known as congenital amusia is characterized by musical difficulties, notably in the detection of gross musical violations. However, there has been increasing evidence that individuals with the disorder show preserved musical ability when probed using implicit methods. To further characterize the degree to which amusic individuals show evidence of latent sensitivity to musical structure, particularly in the context of stimuli that are ecologically valid, electrophysiological recordings were taken from a sample of amusic and control participants as they listened to real melodies. To encourage them to pay attention to the music, participants were asked to detect occasional notes in a different timbre. Using a computational model of auditory expectation to identify points of varying levels of expectedness in these melodies (in units of information content (IC), a measure which has an inverse relationship with probability), ERP analysis investigated the extent to which the amusic brain differs from that of controls when processing notes of high IC (low probability) as compared to low IC ones (high probability). The data revealed a novel effect that was highly comparable in both groups: Notes with high IC reliably elicited a delayed P2 component relative to notes with low IC, suggesting that amusic individuals, like controls, found these notes more difficult to evaluate. However, notes with high IC were also characterized by an early frontal negativity in controls that was attenuated in amusic individuals. A correlation of this early negative effect with the ability to make accurate note expectedness judgments (previous data collected from a subset of the current sample) was shown to be present in typical individuals but compromised in individuals with amusia: a finding in line with evidence of a close relationship between the amplitude of such a response and explicit knowledge of musical deviance.

Keywords: Congenital amusia; Electroencephalography; Expectations; Explicit knowledge; Melodic processing.

MeSH terms

  • Acoustic Stimulation
  • Auditory Perception / physiology*
  • Auditory Perceptual Disorders / physiopathology*
  • Brain / physiopathology*
  • Electroencephalography
  • Evoked Potentials, Auditory*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Music*

Supplementary concepts

  • Tune Deafness