Month: February 2016

How language changes the way you hear music

In a new paper I, together with Roel Willems and Peter Hagoort, show that music and language are tightly coupled in the brain. Get the gist in a 180 second youtube clip and then try out what my participants did.

The task my participants had to do might sound very abstract to you, so let me make it concrete. Listen to these two music pieces and tell me which one sounds ‘finished’:

I bet you thought the second one ended a bit in an odd way. How do you know? You use your implicit knowledge of harmonic relations in Western music for such a ‘finished judgement’. All we did in the paper was to see whether an aspect of language grammar (syntax) can influence your ability to hear these harmonic relations, as revealed by ‘finished judgements’. The music pieces we used for this sounded very similar to what you just heard:

It turns out that reading syntactically difficult sentences while hearing the music reduced the feeling that music pieces like this did actually end well. This indicated that processing language syntax draws on brain resources which are also responsible for music harmony.

Difficult syntax: The surgeon consoled the man and the woman put her hand on his forehead.

Easy syntax: The surgeon consoled the man and the woman because the operation had not been successful.

Curiously, sentences with a difficult meaning had no influence on the ‘finished judgements’.

Difficult meaning: The programmer let his mouse run around on the table after he had fed it.

Easy meaning: The programmer let his field mouse run around on the table after he had fed it.

Because only language syntax influenced ‘finished judgements’, we believe that music and language share a common syntax processor of some kind. This conclusion is in line with a number of other studies which I blogged about before.

What this paper adds is that we rule out an attentional link between music and language as the source of the effect. In other words, difficult syntax doesn’t simply distract you and thereby disables your music hearing. Its influence is based on a common syntax processor instead.

In the end, I tested 278 participants across 3 pre-tests, 2 experiments, and 1 post-test. Judge for yourself whether it was worth it by reading the freely available paper here.

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Kunert R, & Slevc LR (2015). A Commentary on: “Neural overlap in processing music and speech”. Frontiers in human neuroscience, 9 PMID: 26089792

Kunert, R., Willems, R., & Hagoort, P. (2016). Language influences music harmony perception: effects of shared syntactic integration resources beyond attention Royal Society Open Science, 3 (2) DOI: 10.1098/rsos.150685

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