The human auditory system uses amplitude modulation to distinguish music from speech

Andrew Chang, Xiangbin Teng, M. Florencia Assaneo, David Poeppel

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


AMUus:icPalenadsescpoeneficrmhtahraetaclolhmeapdleinxgalenvdeldsaisrteinrecptraeusednittoedrycosrigrencatllsy:that are both foundational to the human experience. The mechanisms underpinning each domain are widely investigated. However, what perceptual mechanism transforms a sound into music or speech and how basicAaUco:uPslteicasinefnoortmetahatitoanspiserrPeLqOuiSrestdylteo; idtaisltiicnsgshuoisuhldbneottwbeeuesnedtfhoeremmrpehmasaisin:Hoepnecne;qpuleeassteiocnonsf.irmthattheitalicizedbasicinthesentenceHowever; Here, we hypothesized that a sound's amplitude modulation (AM), an essential temporal acoustic feature driving the auditory system across processing levels, is critical for distinguishing music and speech. Specifically, in contrast to paradigms using naturalistic acoustic signals (that can be challenging to interpret), we used a noise-probing approach to untangle the auditory mechanism: If AM rate and regularity are critical for perceptually distinguishing music and speech, judging artificially noise-synthesized ambiguous audio signals should align with their AM parameters. Across 4 experiments (N = 335), signals with a higher peak AM frequency tend to be judged as speech, lower as music. Interestingly, this principle is consistently used by all listeners for speech judgments, but only by musically sophisticated listeners for music. In addition, signals with more regular AM are judged as music over speech, and this feature is more critical for music judgment, regardless of musical sophistication. The data suggest that the auditory system can rely on a low-level acoustic property as basic as AM to distinguish music from speech, a simple principle that provokes both neurophysiological and evolutionary experiments and speculations.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article numbere3002631
JournalPLoS biology
Issue number5 May
StatePublished - May 2024

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General Neuroscience
  • General Biochemistry, Genetics and Molecular Biology
  • General Immunology and Microbiology
  • General Agricultural and Biological Sciences


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