Musicianship is associated with neuroplastic changes in brainstem and cortical structures, as well as improved acuity for behaviorally relevant sounds including speech. However, further advance in the field depends on characterizing how neuroplastic changes in brainstem and cortical speech processing relate to one another and to speech-listening behaviors. Here, we show that subcortical and cortical neural plasticity interact to yield the linguistic advantages observed with musicianship. We compared brainstem and cortical neuroelectric responses elicited by a series of vowels that differed along a categorical speech continuum in amateur musicians and non-musicians. Musicians obtained steeper identification functions and classified speech sounds more rapidly than non-musicians. Behavioral advantages coincided with more robust and temporally coherent brainstem phase-locking to salient speech cues (voice pitch and formant information) coupled with increased amplitude in cortical-evoked responses, implying an overall enhancement in the nervous system's responsiveness to speech. Musicians' subcortical and cortical neural enhancements (but not behavioral measures) were correlated with their years of formal music training. Associations between multi-level neural responses were also stronger in musically trained listeners, and were better predictors of speech perception than in non-musicians. Results suggest that musicianship modulates speech representations at multiple tiers of the auditory pathway, and strengthens the correspondence of processing between subcortical and cortical areas to allow neural activity to carry more behaviorally relevant information. We infer that musicians have a refined hierarchy of internalized representations for auditory objects at both pre-attentive and attentive levels that supplies more faithful phonemic templates to decision mechanisms governing linguistic operations.
Keywords: auditory event-related potentials; brainstem frequency-following response; categorical speech perception; experience-dependent plasticity; music-to-language transfer effects.
© 2014 Federation of European Neuroscience Societies and John Wiley & Sons Ltd.