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It's not what you say but the way that you say it: an fMRI study of differential lexical and non-lexical prosodic pitch processing

Derek K Tracy1*, David K Ho1, Owen O'Daly1, Panayiota Michalopoulou1, Lisa C Lloyd1, Eleanor Dimond1, Kazunori Matsumoto2 and Sukhwinder S Shergill1

Author affiliations

1 CSI Lab, Institute of Psychiatry, King's College London, UK

2 Department of Psychiatry, Tohoku University School of Medicine, Sendai, Japan

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Citation and License

BMC Neuroscience 2011, 12:128  doi:10.1186/1471-2202-12-128

Published: 20 December 2011



This study aims to identify the neural substrate involved in prosodic pitch processing. Functional magnetic resonance imaging was used to test the premise that prosody pitch processing is primarily subserved by the right cortical hemisphere.

Two experimental paradigms were used, firstly pairs of spoken sentences, where the only variation was a single internal phrase pitch change, and secondly, a matched condition utilizing pitch changes within analogous tone-sequence phrases. This removed the potential confounder of lexical evaluation. fMRI images were obtained using these paradigms.


Activation was significantly greater within the right frontal and temporal cortices during the tone-sequence stimuli relative to the sentence stimuli.


This study showed that pitch changes, stripped of lexical information, are mainly processed by the right cerebral hemisphere, whilst the processing of analogous, matched, lexical pitch change is preferentially left sided. These findings, showing hemispherical differentiation of processing based on stimulus complexity, are in accord with a 'task dependent' hypothesis of pitch processing.