Previous positron emission tomography (PET) and functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) studies show that during attentive listening, processing of phonetic information is associated with higher activity in the left auditory cortex than in the right auditory cortex while the opposite is true for musical information. The present PET study determined whether automatically activated neural mechanisms for phonetic and musical information are lateralized. To this end, subjects engaged in a visual word classification task were presented with phonetic sound sequences consisting of frequent (P = 0.8) and infrequent (P = 0.2) phonemes and with musical sound sequences consisting of frequent (P = 0.8) and infrequent (P = 0.2) chords. The phonemes and chords were matched in spectral complexity as well as in the magnitude of frequency difference between the frequent and infrequent sounds (/e/ vs. /o/; A major vs. A minor). In addition, control sequences, consisting of either frequent (/e/; A major) or infrequent sounds (/o/; A minor) were employed in separate blocks. When sound sequences consisted of intermixed frequent and infrequent sounds, automatic phonetic processing was lateralized to the left hemisphere and musical to the right hemisphere. This lateralization, however, did not occur in control blocks with one type of sound (frequent or infrequent). The data thus indicate that automatic activation of lateralized neuronal circuits requires sound comparison based on short-term sound representations.
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