Attending to pitch information inhibits processing of pitch information: the curious case of amusia

J Neurosci. 2015 Mar 4;35(9):3815-24. doi: 10.1523/JNEUROSCI.3766-14.2015.


In normal listeners, the tonal rules of music guide musical expectancy. In a minority of individuals, known as amusics, the processing of tonality is disordered, which results in severe musical deficits. It has been shown that the tonal rules of music are neurally encoded, but not consciously available in amusics. Previous neurophysiological studies have not explicitly controlled the level of attention in tasks where participants ignored the tonal structure of the stimuli. Here, we test whether access to tonal knowledge can be demonstrated in congenital amusia when attention is controlled. Electric brain responses were recorded while asking participants to detect an individually adjusted near-threshold click in a melody. In half the melodies, a note was inserted that violated the tonal rules of music. In a second task, participants were presented with the same melodies but were required to detect the tonal deviation. Both tasks required sustained attention, thus conscious access to the rules of tonality was manipulated. In the click-detection task, the pitch deviants evoked an early right anterior negativity (ERAN) in both groups. In the pitch-detection task, the pitch deviants evoked an ERAN and P600 in controls but not in amusics. These results indicate that pitch regularities are represented in the cortex of amusics, but are not consciously available. Moreover, performing a pitch-judgment task eliminated the ERAN in amusics, suggesting that attending to pitch information interferes with perception of pitch. We propose that an impaired top-down frontotemporal projection is responsible for this disorder.

Keywords: ERAN; P600; amusia; attention; consciousness; music.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Acoustic Stimulation
  • Aged
  • Auditory Perception / physiology
  • Auditory Perceptual Disorders / psychology*
  • Electroencephalography
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Music / psychology*
  • Neuropsychological Tests
  • Pitch Discrimination / physiology*
  • Psychomotor Performance / physiology

Supplementary concepts

  • Tune Deafness