Language, music, syntax and the brain


The comparative study of music and language is drawing an increasing amount of research interest. Like language, music is a human universal involving perceptually discrete elements organized into hierarchically structured sequences. Music and language can thus serve as foils for each other in the study of brain mechanisms underlying complex sound processing, and comparative research can provide novel insights into the functional and neural architecture of both domains. This review focuses on syntax, using recent neuroimaging data and cognitive theory to propose a specific point of convergence between syntactic processing in language and music. This leads to testable predictions, including the prediction that that syntactic comprehension problems in Broca's aphasia are not selective to language but influence music perception as well.

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Figure 1: Hierarchical structures in language and music.

Ivelisse Robles

Figure 2: Neural evidence for syntactic overlap in language and music.
Figure 3: How Dependency Locality Theory (DLT)36 measures distances between words.

Kamal Masuta

Figure 4: The geometry of musical pitch space.

Kamal Masuta


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This work was supported by Neurosciences Research Foundation as part of its program on music and the brain at The Neurosciences Institute, where A.D.P. is the Esther J. Burnham fellow. I thank E. Bates, S. Brown, J. Burton, J. Elman, T. Gibson, T. Griffiths, P. Hagoort, T. Justus, C. Krumhansl, F. Lerdahl, J. McDermott and B. Tillmann.

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Supplementary Audio 1.

 The syntax of harmonic structure in music A very important aspect of Western European tonal music (from approximately 1600 to 1900) is its harmonic structure, a system of norms involving the organization of tones, chords, and keys. For example, basic chords (simultaneous soundings of tones) are built from three pitches separated by musical thirds (e.g. "triads" such as C-E-G or D-F-A), with further principles for modifying triads with additional tones. Chord formation thus forms one level of syntactic patterning, concerned with the "vertical" organization of tones. Another level concerns the "horizontal" (sequential) patterning of tones and chords, which plays a vital role in defining keys or coherent tonal regions. (For those unfamiliar with the concept of a musical key, a brief description is given in the section of the paper titled "Syntactic processing in music: Tonal Pitch Space Theory"). For the purposes of this article, the essential point is that many of the norms of tonal syntax are implicitly learned by listeners who grow up listening to this music or to music based on similar conventions (a good deal of popular music of the past 100 years has been strongly influenced by these conventions) [cf. ref. 40 in the paper]. A brief illustration of sequential tonal syntax is provided by the following two sound examples from a recent study by Tillmann et al. [Tillmann, B., Janata, P., Birk, J., & Bharucha, JJ. The costs and benefits of tonal centers for chord processing. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Human Perception and Performance 29, 470-482 (2003)]. This example illustrates a conventional chord progression in the style of J.S. Bach. For an example of music in which each individual chord is harmonically well-formed, but the sequence is syntactically odd because chords from different keys are combined, see Supplementary Audio 2. Like the study of linguistic syntax, the study of harmony has a large theoretical literature. For an introduction aimed at beginners, see Kostka, S. & Payne, D. Tonal Harmony, with an Introduction to Twentieth Century Music, 4th ed. (McGraw Hill, New York, 2000). (WAV 592 kb)

Supplementary Audio 2.

 Each individual chord is harmonically well-formed, but the sequence is syntactically odd because chords from different keys are combined (see legend for Supplementary Audio 1 for further explanation). (WAV 513 kb)

Supplementary Audio 3.

 Sour notes in music A "sour note" is a note which sounds odd because it violates musical key structure, i.e. it does not belong to the scale of the current musical key. It is not physically deviant in any way, and can sound perfectly normal in another context. The "sourness" of a sour note depends on enculturation in a particular musical tradition, and reflects implicit knowledge of tonal norms [cf. Janata, P., Birk, J.L., Tillmann, B., & Bharucha, J.J. Online detection of tonal pop-out in modulating contexts. Music Perception 20, 283-305 (2003)]. Sour notes in Western European tonal music are easily detected by people who have grown up with this music, both musicians and nonmusicians alike. In fact, the inability to detect sour notes is diagnostic of "congenital amusia" [cf. ref. 16 in the paper]. The following melody contains a sour note about 2/3 of the way through the sample. This melody is from the Essen folksong database (, where it is indexed as K0016 in the Kinder0 file (the melody does not have the sour note in its original version). For a recent discussion of the cognitive neuroscience of melody, see Patel, A.D. in The Cognitive Neuroscience of Music (eds. Peretz, I. & Zatorre, R.) (Oxford University Press, Oxford, in press). (WAV 2129 kb)

Supplementary Audio 4.

 Christus, der ist mein Leben 1st phrase (J.S. Bach) (WAV 861 kb)

Supplementary Note 1 (PDF 5 kb)

Supplementary Note 2 (PDF 5 kb)

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