Melodic pitch expectation interacts with neural responses to syntactic but not semantic violations

Elisa Carrus, Marcus T Pearce, Joydeep Bhattacharya
Cortex; a Journal Devoted to the Study of the Nervous System and Behavior 2013, 49 (8): 2186-200
Current behavioural and electrophysiological evidence suggests that music and language syntactic processing depends on at least partly shared neural resources. Existing studies using a simultaneous presentation paradigm are limited to the effects of violations of harmonic structure in Western tonal music on processing of single syntactic or semantic violations. Because melody is a universal property of music as it is emphasized also by non-western musical traditions, it is fundamental to investigate interactions between melodic expectation and language processing. The present study investigates the effect of melodically unexpected notes on neural responses elicited by linguistic violations. Sentences with or without a violation in the last word were presented on screen simultaneously with melodies whose last note had a high- or low-probability, as estimated by a computational model of melodic expectation. Violations in language could be syntactic, semantic or combined. The electroencephalogram (EEG) was recorded while participants occasionally responded to language stimuli. Confirming previous studies, low-probability notes elicited an enhanced N1 compared to high-probability notes. Further, syntactic violations elicited a left anterior negativity (LAN) and P600 component, and semantic violations elicited an N400. Combined violations elicited components which resembled neural responses to both syntactic and semantic incongruities. The LAN amplitude was decreased when language syntactic violations were presented simultaneously with low-probability notes compared to when they were presented with high-probability notes. The N400 was not influenced by the note-probability. These findings show support for the neural interaction between language and music processing, including novel evidence for melodic processing which can be incorporated in a computational framework of melodic expectation.

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