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Brainstem correlates of behavioral and compositional preferences of musical harmony

Bidelman, Gavin M.; Krishnan, Ananthanarayan

doi: 10.1097/WNR.0b013e328344a689

Certain chords are preferred by listeners behaviorally and also occur with higher regularity in musical composition. Event-related potentials index the perceived consonance (i.e., pleasantness) of musical pitch relationships providing a cortical neural correlate for such behavioral preferences. Here, we show correlates of these harmonic preferences exist at subcortical stages of audition. Brainstem frequency-following responses were measured in response to four prototypical musical triads. Pitch salience computed from frequency-following responses correctly predicted the ordering of triadic harmony stipulated by music theory (i.e., major >minor >>diminished >augmented). Moreover, neural response magnitudes showed high correspondence with listeners' perceptual ratings of the same chords. Results suggest that preattentive stages of pitch processing may contribute to perceptual judgments of musical harmony.

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Department of Speech, Language, & Hearing Sciences, Purdue University, West Lafayette, Indiana, USA

Correspondence to Gavin M. Bidelman, Department of Speech, Language, & Hearing Sciences, Purdue University, 1353 Heavilon Hall, 500 Oval Drive, West Lafayette, IN 47907-2038, USA Tel: +1 765 494 6710; fax: +1 765 494 0771; e-mail:

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Received January 6, 2011

Accepted January 13, 2011

© 2011 Lippincott Williams & Wilkins, Inc.