Experimental Brain Research

, Volume 238, Issue 1, pp 247–258 | Cite as

Same or different pitch? Effects of musical expertise, pitch difference, and auditory task on the pitch discrimination ability of musicians and non-musicians

  • Christin ArndtEmail author
  • Kathrin Schlemmer
  • Elke van der Meer
Research Article


Musical expertise promotes both the perception and the processing of music. The aim of the present study was to analyze if musicians compared to non-musicians already have auditory processing advantages at the neural level. 50 musicians and 50 non-musicians worked on a task to determine the individual auditory difference threshold (individual JND threshold). A passive oddball paradigm followed while the EEG activity was recorded. Frequent standard sounds (528 hertz [Hz]) and rare deviant sounds (individual JND threshold, 535 Hz, and 558 Hz) were presented in the oddball paradigm. The mismatch negativity (MMN) and the P3a were used as indicators of auditory discrimination skills for frequency differences. Musicians had significantly smaller individual JND thresholds than non-musicians, but musicians were not faster than non-musicians. Musicians and non-musicians showed both the MMN and the P3a at the 535 Hz and 558 Hz condition. In the individual JND threshold condition, non-musicians, whose individual JND threshold was at 539.8 Hz (and therefore even above the deviant sound of 535 Hz), predictably showed the MMN and the P3a. Musicians, whose individual JND threshold was at 531.1 Hz (and thus close to the standard sound of 528 Hz), showed no MMN and P3a—although they were behaviorally able to differentiate frequencies individually within their JND threshold range. This may indicate a key role of attention in triggering the MMN during the detection of frequency differences in the individual JND threshold range (see Tervaniemi et al. in Exp Brain 161:1–10, 2005).


Pitch discrimination Musical expertise Individual auditory difference threshold Mismatch negativity (MMN) P3a 



This research was funded by the Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin (CA and EvdM) and the Elsa-Neumann-Stipendium des Landes Berlin as a cooperation project with the Katholische Universität Eichstätt-Ingolstadt (KS). We are grateful to the participants for supporting our research. We thank Christina Rügen for her dedicated work with the participants and her elaborate EEG data recordings. We thank Michelle Wyrobnik, Christina Reimer, Annika Dix, Gesa Schaadt, Michelle Au, and Guido Kiecker for all their support. We thank Lindsay Flint for the language editing.

Compliance with ethical standards

Conflict of interest

No potential conflict of interest was reported by the authors.


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Copyright information

© Springer-Verlag GmbH Germany, part of Springer Nature 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of PsychologyHumboldt-Universität zu BerlinBerlinGermany
  2. 2.Department of MusicologyKatholische Universität Eichstätt-IngolstadtEichstättGermany
  3. 3.Berlin School of Mind and BrainBerlinGermany

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