Representations of pitch and timbre variation in human auditory cortex

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Pitch and timbre are two primary dimensions of auditory perception, but how they are represented in the human brain remains a matter of contention. Some animal studies of auditory cortical processing have suggested modular processing, with different brain regions preferentially coding for pitch or timbre, whereas other studies have suggested a distributed code for different attributes across the same population of neurons. This study tested whether variations in pitch and timbre elicit activity in distinct regions of the human temporal lobes. Listeners were presented with sequences of sounds that varied in either fundamental frequency (eliciting changes in pitch) or spectral centroid (eliciting changes in brightness, an important attribute of timbre), with the degree of pitch or timbre variation in each sequence parametrically manipulated. TheBOLDresponses from auditory cortex increased with increasing sequence variance along each perceptual dimension. The spatial extent, region, and laterality of the cortical regions most responsive to variations in pitch or timbre at the univariate level of analysis were largely overlapping. However, patterns of activation in response to pitch or timbre variations were discriminable in most subjects at an individual level using multivoxel pattern analysis, suggesting a distributed coding of the two dimensions bilaterally in human auditory cortex.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1284-1293
Number of pages10
JournalJournal of Neuroscience
Issue number5
StatePublished - Feb 1 2017

Bibliographical note

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© 2017 the authors.


  • Auditory cortex
  • Heschl’s gyrus
  • Perception
  • Pitch
  • Timbre
  • fMRI


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