Behavioral evidence indicates that musical context facilitates pitch discrimination. In the present study, we sought to determine whether pitch context and its familiarity might affect brain responses to pitch change even at the preattentive level. Ten musicians and 10 nonmusicians, while concentrating on reading a book, were presented with sound stimuli that had an infrequent (p = 15%) pitch shift of 144 Hz. In the familiar condition, the infrequent third-position deviant changed the mode (major vs. minor) of the five-tone pattern. In the unfamiliar condition, patterns were formed from five arithmetically determined tone frequencies, the deviant not causing any change of mode. The no-context condition included only third-position tones. All deviants elicited the change-specific mismatch negativity component of the event-related potentials in both groups of subjects. In both musicians and nonmusicians, pitch change in the familiar condition evoked larger mismatch negativity amplitude than the change in the unfamiliar condition and, correspondingly, larger mismatch negativity in the unfamiliar condition than in the no-context condition. This suggests that preattentive pitch-change processing is generally enhanced in a familiar context. Moreover, the latency of the mismatch negativity was shorter for musicians than for nonmusicians in both the familiar and unfamiliar conditions, whereas no difference between groups was observed in the no-context condition. This finding indicates that, in response to sequential structured sound events, the auditory system reacts faster in musicians than in nonmusicians.
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