Intonational speech prosody encoding in the human auditory cortex

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Science  25 Aug 2017:
Vol. 357, Issue 6353, pp. 797-801
DOI: 10.1126/science.aam8577

Brain mechanisms of pitch perception

To emphasize a word, we briefly raise our pitch; this alone can change the meaning of a sentence. Tang et al. performed high-density brain recordings on clinically monitored neurosurgical patients. They discovered that intonational pitch is represented by a highly specialized and dedicated neural population in the auditory cortex. Discrete cortical sites extracted intonational information in real time from the speech signal. These sites were overlapping with, but functionally independent from, sites that encode other critical aspects of speech, such as the phonemes and information about the speaker.

Science, this issue p. 797


Speakers of all human languages regularly use intonational pitch to convey linguistic meaning, such as to emphasize a particular word. Listeners extract pitch movements from speech and evaluate the shape of intonation contours independent of each speaker’s pitch range. We used high-density electrocorticography to record neural population activity directly from the brain surface while participants listened to sentences that varied in intonational pitch contour, phonetic content, and speaker. Cortical activity at single electrodes over the human superior temporal gyrus selectively represented intonation contours. These electrodes were intermixed with, yet functionally distinct from, sites that encoded different information about phonetic features or speaker identity. Furthermore, the representation of intonation contours directly reflected the encoding of speaker-normalized relative pitch but not absolute pitch.

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