Unattended processing of hierarchical pitch variations in spoken sentences

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HighlightsHuman can unattentively disentangle hierarchical levels of pitch variation in speech.Lexical- and sentence-level pitch variations are underlined by different neural oscillations.Hierarchical levels of pitch variation can be unattentively and immediately detected.An auditory oddball paradigm was employed to examine the unattended processing of pitch variation which functions to signal hierarchically different levels of meaning contrasts. Four oddball conditions were constructed by varying the pitch contour of critical words embedded in a Mandarin Chinese sentence. Two conditions included lexical-level word meaning contrasts (i.e. TONE condition) and the other two sentence-level information-status contrasts (i.e. ACCENTUATION condition). Both included stimuli with early vs. late acoustic cue divergence points. Results showed that the two early-cue conditions elicited earlier Mismatch Negativities, regardless of their functional hierarchy. The deviant stimuli induced theta-band power increases in the TONE condition but beta-band power decreases in the ACCENTUATIION condition, regardless of the timing of their acoustic cues. These results suggest that, in an unattentive state, the human brain can functionally disentangle hierarchically different levels of pitch variation, and the brain responses to these pitch variations are time-locked to the presence of the acoustic cues.

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