The High-Voice Superiority Effect in Polyphonic Music Is Influenced by Experience: A Comparison of Musicians Who Play Soprano-Range Compared With Bass-Range Instruments

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Western polyphonic music is typically composed of multiple simultaneous melodic lines of equal importance, referred to as “voices.” Previous studies have shown that adult nonmusicians are able to encode each voice in separate parallel sensory memory traces during passive listening. Specifically, when presented with sequences composed of two simultaneous voices (melodies), listeners show mismatch negativity (MMN) responses to pitch changes in each voice, although only 50% of trials are unchanged. Interestingly, MMN is larger for the change in the higher compared to lower voice in both musicians and nonmusicians. This high-voice superiority effect has also been found in nonmusician adults and 7-month-old infants presented with two simultaneous tones, suggesting that a more robust memory trace for the higher-pitched voice might be an innate or early-acquired characteristic of human auditory processing. The present study tested whether musicians with experience playing a bass-range instrument (e.g., cello, double bass) would show a similar high-voice superiority effect as musicians with experience playing a soprano-range instrument (e.g., violin, flute). We found that musicians playing soprano-range instruments showed a high-voice superiority effect in line with previous studies, but musicians playing bass-range instruments showed similar MMN responses for both voices. These results suggest that with years of experience playing a lower-voiced instrument, cortical encoding of the lower of two simultaneous voices can be enhanced to some extent despite the early developing bias for better encoding of the higher voice.

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