Consonance and dissonance are basic phenomena in the perception of chords that can be discriminated very early in sensory processing. Musical expertise has been shown to facilitate neural processing of various musical stimuli, but it is unclear whether this applies to detecting consonance and dissonance. Our study aimed to determine if sensitivity to increasing levels of dissonance differs between musicians and nonmusicians, using a combination of neural (electroencephalographic mismatch negativity, MMN) and behavioral measurements (conscious discrimination). Furthermore, we wanted to see if focusing attention to the sounds modulated the neural processing. We used chords comprised of either highly consonant or highly dissonant intervals and further manipulated the degree of dissonance to create two levels of dissonant chords. Both groups discriminated dissonant chords from consonant ones neurally and behaviorally. The magnitude of the MMN differed only marginally between the more dissonant and the less dissonant chords. The musicians outperformed the nonmusicians in the behavioral task. As the dissonant chords elicited MMN responses for both groups, sensory dissonance seems to be discriminated in an early sensory level, irrespective of musical expertise, and the facilitating effects of musicianship for this discrimination may arise in later stages of auditory processing, appearing only in the behavioral auditory task.
Guitar distortion used in rock music modifies a chord so that new frequencies appear in its harmonic structure. A distorted dyad (power chord) has a special role in heavy metal music due to its harmonics that create a major third interval, making it similar to a major chord. We investigated how distortion affects cortical auditory processing of chords in musicians and nonmusicians. Electric guitar chords with or without distortion and with or without the interval of the major third (i.e., triads or dyads) were presented in an oddball design where one of them served as a repeating standard stimulus and others served as occasional deviants. This enabled the recording of event-related potentials (ERPs) of the electroencephalogram (EEG) related to deviance processing (the mismatch negativity MMN and the attention-related P3a component) in an ignore condition. MMN and P3a responses were elicited in most paradigms. Distorted chords in a nondistorted context only elicited early P3a responses. However, the power chord did not demonstrate a special role in the level of the ERPs. Earlier and larger MMN and P3a responses were elicited when distortion was modified compared to when only harmony (triad vs. dyad) was modified between standards and deviants. The MMN responses were largest when distortion and harmony deviated simultaneously. Musicians demonstrated larger P3a responses than nonmusicians. The results suggest mostly independent cortical auditory processing of distortion and harmony in Western individuals, and facilitated chord change processing in musicians compared to nonmusicians. While distortion has been used in heavy rock music for decades, this study is among the first ones to shed light on its cortical basis.