This article investigates the processing of intonational rises and falls when presented unexpectedly in a stream of repetitive auditory stimuli. It examines the neurophysiological correlates (ERPs) of attention to these unexpected stimuli through the use of an oddball paradigm where sequences of repetitive stimuli are occasionally interspersed with a deviant stimulus, allowing for elicitation of a MMN. Whereas previous oddball studies on attention toward unexpected sounds involving pitch rises were conducted on nonlinguistic stimuli, the present study uses as stimuli lexical items in German with naturalistic intonation contours. Results indicate that rising intonation plays a special role in attention orienting at a pre-attentive processing stage, whereas contextual meaning (here a list of items) is essential for activating attentional resources at a conscious processing stage. This is reflected in the activation of distinct brain responses: Rising intonation evokes the largest MMN, whereas falling intonation elicits a less pronounced MMN followed by a P3 (reflecting a conscious processing stage). Subsequently, we also find a complex interplay between the phonological status (i.e., accent/head marking vs. boundary/edge marking) and the direction of pitch change in their contribution to attention orienting: Attention is not oriented necessarily toward a specific position in prosodic structure (head or edge). Rather, we find that the intonation contour itself and the appropriateness of the contour in the linguistic context are the primary cues to two core mechanisms of attention orienting, pre-attentive and conscious orientation respectively, whereas the phonological status of the pitch event plays only a supplementary role.

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