Experimental Brain Research

, Volume 161, Issue 1, pp 1–10 | Cite as

Pitch discrimination accuracy in musicians vs nonmusicians: an event-related potential and behavioral study

  • Mari Tervaniemi
  • Viola Just
  • Stefan Koelsch
  • Andreas Widmann
  • Erich Schröger
Research Article


Previously, professional violin players were found to automatically discriminate tiny pitch changes, not discriminable by nonmusicians. The present study addressed the pitch processing accuracy in musicians with expertise in playing a wide selection of instruments (e.g., piano; wind and string instruments). Of specific interest was whether also musicians with such divergent backgrounds have facilitated accuracy in automatic and/or attentive levels of auditory processing. Thirteen professional musicians and 13 nonmusicians were presented with frequent standard sounds and rare deviant sounds (0.8, 2, or 4% higher in frequency). Auditory event-related potentials evoked by these sounds were recorded while first the subjects read a self-chosen book and second they indicated behaviorally the detection of sounds with deviant frequency. Musicians detected the pitch changes faster and more accurately than nonmusicians. The N2b and P3 responses recorded during attentive listening had larger amplitude in musicians than in nonmusicians. Interestingly, the superiority in pitch discrimination accuracy in musicians over nonmusicians was observed not only with the 0.8% but also with the 2% frequency changes. Moreover, also nonmusicians detected quite reliably the smallest pitch changes of 0.8%. However, the mismatch negativity (MMN) and P3a recorded during a reading condition did not differentiate musicians and nonmusicians. These results suggest that musical expertise may exert its effects merely at attentive levels of processing and not necessarily already at the preattentive levels.


Pitch discrimination Complex sounds Musical expertise Auditory event-related potentials Mismatch negativity (MMN) P3a N2b P3 



The study was supported by Deutscher Akademischer Austauschdienst, Marie Curie Individual fellowship by European Commission (M.T.; QLK6-CT-2000051227) and DFG (E.S.).


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Copyright information

© Springer-Verlag 2004

Authors and Affiliations

  • Mari Tervaniemi
    • 1
    • 2
  • Viola Just
    • 2
  • Stefan Koelsch
    • 3
  • Andreas Widmann
    • 2
  • Erich Schröger
    • 2
  1. 1.Cognitive Brain Research Unit, Department of PsychologyUniversity of Helsinki, Helsinki Brain Research CentreHelsinkiFinland
  2. 2.Institut für Allgemeine PsychologieLeipzig UniversitätLeipzigGermany
  3. 3.Harvard Medical SchoolBostonUSA

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