Sensitivity to Frequency Modulation is Limited Centrally

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2 Scopus citations


Modulations in both amplitude and frequency are prevalent in natural sounds and are critical in defining their properties. Humans are exquisitely sensitive to frequency modulation (FM) at the slow modulation rates and low carrier frequencies that are common in speech and music. This enhanced sensitivity to slow-rate and low-frequency FM has been widely believed to reflect precise, stimulus-driven phase locking to temporal fine structure in the auditory nerve. At faster modulation rates and/or higher carrier frequencies, FM is instead thought to be coded by coarser frequency-to-place mapping, where FM is converted to amplitude modulation (AM) via cochlear filtering. Here, we show that patterns of human FM perception that have classically been explained by limits in peripheral temporal coding are instead better accounted for by constraints in the central processing of fundamental frequency (F0) or pitch. We measured FM detection in male and female humans using harmonic complex tones with an F0 within the range of musical pitch but with resolved harmonic components that were all above the putative limits of temporal phase locking (.8 kHz). Listeners were more sensitive to slow than fast FM rates, even though all components were beyond the limits of phase locking. In contrast, AM sensitivity remained better at faster than slower rates, regardless of carrier frequency. These findings demonstrate that classic trends in human FM sensitivity, previously attributed to auditory nerve phase locking, may instead reflect the constraints of a unitary code that operates at a more central level of processing.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)3687-3695
Number of pages9
JournalJournal of Neuroscience
Issue number20
StatePublished - May 17 2023

Bibliographical note

Publisher Copyright:
Copyright © 2023 the authors.


  • auditory perception
  • frequency modulation
  • pitch
  • place code

PubMed: MeSH publication types

  • Journal Article
  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't


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