Distinct Representations of Tonotopy and Pitch in Human Auditory Cortex

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10 Scopus citations


Frequency-to-place mapping, or tonotopy, is a fundamental organizing principle throughout the auditory system, from the earliest stages of auditory processing in the cochlea to subcortical and cortical regions. Although cortical maps are referred to as tonotopic, it is unclear whether they simply reflect a mapping of physical frequency inherited from the cochlea, a computation of pitch based on the fundamental frequency, or a mixture of these two features. We used high-resolution functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to measure BOLD responses as male and female human participants listened to pure tones that varied in frequency or complex tones that varied in either spectral content (brightness) or fundamental frequency (pitch). Our results reveal evidence for pitch tuning in bilateral regions that partially overlap with the traditional tonotopic maps of spectral content. In general, primary regions within Heschl's gyri (HGs) exhibited more tuning to spectral content, whereas areas surrounding HGs exhibited more tuning to pitch. SIGNIFICANCE STATEMENT Tonotopy, an orderly mapping of frequency, is observed throughout the auditory system. However, it is not known whether the tonotopy observed in the cortex simply reflects the frequency spectrum (as in the ear) or instead represents the higher-level feature of fundamental frequency, or pitch. Using carefully controlled stimuli and high-resolution functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), we separated these features to study their cortical representations. Our results suggest that tonotopy in primary cortical regions is driven predominantly by frequency, but also reveal evidence for tuning to pitch in regions that partially overlap with the tonotopic gradients but extend into nonprimary cortical areas. In addition to resolving ambiguities surrounding cortical tonotopy, our findings provide evidence that selectivity for pitch is distributed bilaterally throughout auditory cortex.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)416-434
Number of pages19
JournalJournal of Neuroscience
Issue number3
StatePublished - Jan 19 2022

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
This work was supported by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) Grant R01 DC005216. The Center for Magnetic Resonance Research (CMRR) is supported by NIH Grants P41 EB027061, P30 NS076408, and S10 RR026783 and by the W.M. Keck Foundation. We thank Anahita Mehta, Omer Faruk Gulban, Andrea Grant, Cheryl Olman, and Stephen Engel for helpful assistance, training, and advice. The authors declare no competing financial interests. Correspondence should be addressed to Emily J. Allen at prac0010@umn.edu. https://doi.org/10.1523/JNEUROSCI.0960-21.2021 Copyright © 2022 the authors

Publisher Copyright:
Copyright © 2022 the authors


  • auditory cortex
  • fMRI
  • frequency
  • pitch
  • timbre
  • tonotopy
  • Acoustic Stimulation
  • Auditory Perception/physiology
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Young Adult
  • Magnetic Resonance Imaging
  • Pitch Perception/physiology
  • Auditory Cortex/diagnostic imaging
  • Brain Mapping
  • Adult
  • Female
  • Pitch Discrimination/physiology

Center for Magnetic Resonance Research (CMRR) tags

  • BFC
  • P41

PubMed: MeSH publication types

  • Journal Article
  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural


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