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Processing of hierarchical syntactic structure in music

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<mark>Journal publication date</mark>17/09/2013
<mark>Journal</mark>Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences
Issue number38
Volume110
Number of pages6
Pages (from-to)15443-15448
<mark>State</mark>Published
Early online date3/09/13
<mark>Original language</mark>English

Abstract

Hierarchical structure with nested nonlocal dependencies is a key feature of human language and can be identified theoretically in most pieces of tonal music. However, previous studies have argued against the perception of such structures in music. Here, we show processing of nonlocal dependencies in music. We presented chorales by J. S. Bach and modified versions in which the hierarchical structure was rendered irregular whereas the local structure was kept intact. Brain electric responses differed between regular and irregular hierarchical structures, in both musicians and nonmusicians. This finding indicates that, when listening to music, humans apply cognitive processes that are capable of dealing with long-distance dependencies resulting from hierarchically organized syntactic structures. Our results reveal that a brain mechanism fundamental for syntactic processing is engaged during the perception of music, indicating that processing of hierarchical structure with nested nonlocal dependencies is not just a key component of human language, but a multidomain capacity of human cognition.