Neurophysiology and neuroanatomy of pitch perception: auditory cortex

Tramo MJ, Cariani PA, Koh CK, Makris N, Braida LD

Ann. N. Y. Acad. Sci. 2005 Dec;1060:148-74

PMID: 16597761


We present original results and review literature from the past fifty years that address the role of primate auditory cortex in the following perceptual capacities: (1) the ability to perceive small differences between the pitches of two successive tones; (2) the ability to perceive the sign (i.e., direction) of the pitch difference [higher (+) vs. lower (-)]; and (3) the ability to abstract pitch constancy across changes in stimulus acoustics. Cortical mechanisms mediating pitch perception are discussed with respect to (1) gross and microanatomical distribution; and (2) candidate neural coding schemes. Observations by us and others suggest that (1) frequency-selective neurons in primary auditory cortex (A1) and surrounding fields play a critical role in fine-grained pitch discrimination at the perceptual level; (2) cortical mechanisms that detect pitch differences are neuroanatomically dissociable from those mediating pitch direction discrimination; (3) cortical mechanisms mediating perception of the “missing fundamental frequency (F0)” are neuroanatomically dissociable from those mediating pitch perception when F0 is present; (4) frequency-selective neurons in both right and left A1 contribute to pitch change detection and pitch direction discrimination; (5) frequency-selective neurons in right A1 are necessary for normal pitch direction discrimination; (6) simple codes for pitch that are based on single- and multiunit firing rates of frequency-selective neurons face both a “hyperacuity problem” and a “pitch constancy problem”-that is, frequency discrimination thresholds for pitch change direction and pitch direction discrimination are much smaller than neural tuning curves predict, and firing rate patterns change dramatically under conditions in which pitch percepts remain invariant; (7) cochleotopic organization of frequency-selective neurons bears little if any relevance to perceptual acuity and pitch constancy; and (8) simple temporal codes for pitch capable of accounting for pitches higher than a few hundred hertz have not been found in the auditory cortex. The cortical code for pitch is therefore not likely to be a function of simple rate profiles or synchronous temporal patterns. Studies motivated by interest in the neurophysiology and neuroanatomy of music perception have helped correct longstanding misconceptions about the functional role of auditory cortex in frequency discrimination and pitch perception. Advancing knowledge about the neural coding of pitch is of fundamental importance to the future design of neurobionic therapies for hearing loss.