Listen up! Processing of intensity change differs for vocal and nonvocal sounds

Annett Schirmer, Elizabeth Simpson, Nicolas Escoffier

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

43 Scopus citations


Changes in the intensity of both vocal and nonvocal sounds can be emotionally relevant. However, as only vocal sounds directly reflect communicative intent, intensity change of vocal but not nonvocal sounds is socially relevant. Here we investigated whether a change in sound intensity is processed differently depending on its social relevance. To this end, participants listened passively to a sequence of vocal or nonvocal sounds that contained rare deviants which differed from standards in sound intensity. Concurrently recorded event-related potentials (ERPs) revealed a mismatch negativity (MMN) and P300 effect for intensity change. Direction of intensity change was of little importance for vocal stimulus sequences, which recruited enhanced sensory and attentional resources for both loud and soft deviants. In contrast, intensity change in nonvocal sequences recruited more sensory and attentional resources for loud as compared to soft deviants. This was reflected in markedly larger MMN/P300 amplitudes and shorter P300 latencies for the loud as compared to soft nonvocal deviants. Furthermore, while the processing pattern observed for nonvocal sounds was largely comparable between men and women, sex differences for vocal sounds suggest that women were more sensitive to their social relevance. These findings extend previous evidence of sex differences in vocal processing and add to reports of voice specific processing mechanisms by demonstrating that simple acoustic change recruits more processing resources if it is socially relevant.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)103-112
Number of pages10
JournalBrain research
Issue number1
StatePublished - Oct 24 2007
Externally publishedYes


  • Attention
  • Empathy
  • Gender
  • MMN
  • P300
  • P3a
  • Prosody

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Neuroscience(all)
  • Molecular Biology
  • Clinical Neurology
  • Developmental Biology


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