Changes in emotional tone and instrumental timbre are reflected by the mismatch negativity

Katja N. Goydke, Eckart Altenmüller, Jürn Möller, Thomas F. Münte

52 Citations (Scopus)


The present study examined whether or not the brain is capable to preattentively discriminate tones differing in emotional expression or instrumental timbre. In two event-related potential (ERP) experiments single tones (600 ms) were presented which had been rated as happy or sad in a pretest. In experiment 1, 12 non-musicians passively listened to tone series comprising a frequent (standard) single musical tone played by a violin in a certain pitch and with a certain emotional connotation (happy or sad). Among these standard tones deviant tones differing in emotional valence, either in instrumental timbre or in pitch were presented. All deviants generated mismatch negativity (MMN) responses. The MMN scalp topography was similar for all of the three deviants but latency was shorter for pitch deviants than for the other two conditions. The topography of the mismatch responses was indistinguishable. In a second experiment, subjects actively detected the deviant tones by button press. All detected deviants generated P3b waves at parietal leads. These results indicate that the brain is not only able to use simple physical differences such as pitch for rapid preattentive categorization but can also perform similar operations on the basis of more complex differences between tones of the same pitch such as instrumental timbre and the subtle timbral differences associated with different emotional expression. This rapid categorization may serve as a basis for the further fine-grained analysis of musical (and other) sounds with regard to their emotional content.

Original languageEnglish
JournalCognitive Brain Research
Issue number3
Pages (from-to)351-359
Number of pages9
Publication statusPublished - 01.11.2004

Research Areas and Centers

  • Academic Focus: Center for Brain, Behavior and Metabolism (CBBM)


Dive into the research topics of 'Changes in emotional tone and instrumental timbre are reflected by the mismatch negativity'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this