Musicians show general enhancement of complex sound encoding and better inhibition of irrelevant auditory change in music: an ERP study

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Abstract

Using electrophysiology, we have examined two questions in relation to musical training – namely, whether it enhances sensory encoding of the human voice and whether it improves the ability to ignore irrelevant auditory change. Participants performed an auditory distraction task, in which they identified each sound as either short (350 ms) or long (550 ms) and ignored a change in timbre of the sounds. Sounds consisted of a male and a female voice saying a neutral sound [a], and of a cello and a French Horn playing an F3 note. In some blocks, musical sounds occurred on 80% of trials, while voice sounds on 20% of trials. In other blocks, the reverse was true. Participants heard naturally recorded sounds in half of experimental blocks and their spectrally-rotated versions in the other half. Regarding voice perception, we found that musicians had a larger N1 event-related potential component not only to vocal sounds but also to their never before heard spectrally-rotated versions. We therefore conclude that musical training is associated with a general improvement in the early neural encoding of complex sounds. Regarding the ability to ignore irrelevant auditory change, musicians' accuracy tended to suffer less from the change in timbre of the sounds, especially when deviants were musical notes. This behavioral finding was accompanied by a marginally larger re-orienting negativity in musicians, suggesting that their advantage may lie in a more efficient disengagement of attention from the distracting auditory dimension.

Musicians showed a larger N1 ERP component not only to musical and vocal sounds, but also to their spectrally-rotated versions (ROT), suggesting that musical training is associated with a general enhancement in the neural encoding of complex sounds. The musicians' ability to ignore irrelevant auditory change surpassed that of non-musician, but only when distractors were music sounds, pointing to the role of familiarity with a specific timbre in this skill.

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