Syntactic processing in music and language: Effects of interrupting auditory streams with alternating timbres

Anna Fiveash*, William Forde Thompson, Nicholas A. Badcock, Genevieve McArthur

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleResearchpeer-review

16 Citations (Scopus)


Music and language both rely on the processing of spectral (pitch, timbre) and temporal (rhythm) information to create structure and meaning from incoming auditory streams. Behavioral results have shown that interrupting a melodic stream with unexpected changes in timbre leads to reduced syntactic processing. Such findings suggest that syntactic processing is conditional on successful streaming of incoming sequential information. The current study used event-related potentials (ERPs) to investigate whether (1) the effect of alternating timbres on syntactic processing is reflected in a reduced brain response to syntactic violations, and (2) the phenomenon is similar for music and language. Participants listened to melodies and sentences with either one timbre (piano or one voice) or three timbres (piano, guitar, and vibraphone, or three different voices). Half the stimuli contained syntactic violations: an out-of-key note in the melodies, and a phrase-structure violation in the sentences. We found smaller ERPs to syntactic violations in music in the three-timbre compared to the one-timbre condition, reflected in a reduced early right anterior negativity (ERAN). A similar but non-significant pattern was observed for language stimuli in both the early left anterior negativity (ELAN) and the left anterior negativity (LAN) ERPs. The results suggest that disruptions to auditory streaming may interfere with syntactic processing, especially for melodic sequences.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)31-40
Number of pages10
JournalInternational Journal of Psychophysiology
Publication statusPublished - Jul 2018
Externally publishedYes


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