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Music, language and meaning: brain signatures of semantic processing


Semantics is a key feature of language, but whether or not music can activate brain mechanisms related to the processing of semantic meaning is not known. We compared processing of semantic meaning in language and music, investigating the semantic priming effect as indexed by behavioral measures and by the N400 component of the event-related brain potential (ERP) measured by electroencephalography (EEG). Human subjects were presented visually with target words after hearing either a spoken sentence or a musical excerpt. Target words that were semantically unrelated to prime sentences elicited a larger N400 than did target words that were preceded by semantically related sentences. In addition, target words that were preceded by semantically unrelated musical primes showed a similar N400 effect, as compared to target words preceded by related musical primes. The N400 priming effect did not differ between language and music with respect to time course, strength or neural generators. Our results indicate that both music and language can prime the meaning of a word, and that music can, as language, determine physiological indices of semantic processing.

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Figure 1: Examples of the four experimental conditions preceding a visually presented target word.
Figure 2: The N400 effect was similar for language and music priming, and did not depend on emotional content.
Figure 3: Grand-average source reconstruction of the N400 effect elicited by target words after the presentation of sentences (top) and musical excerpts (bottom).
Figure 4: ERPs elicited under a condition in which participants performed a memory test, separately for targets presented after sentences (top) and music (bottom).


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This work was supported by the German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD).

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Correspondence to Stefan Koelsch.

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Supplementary information

Supplementary Methods (PDF 6 kb)

Supplementary Audio 1

Musical excerpt priming the word wideness (rather than narrowness). (MP3 159 kb)

Supplementary Audio 2

Musical excerpt priming the word narrowness (rather than wideness). (MP3 242 kb)

Supplementary Audio 3

Musical excerpt priming the word needle (rather than river). (MP3 240 kb)

Supplementary Audio 4

Musical excerpt priming the word river (rather than needle). (MP3 235 kb)

Supplementary Audio 5

Musical excerpt priming the word staircase (rather than blossom). (MP3 213 kb)

Supplementary Audio 6

Musical excerpt priming the word basement (rather than sun). (MP3 335 kb)

Supplementary Audio 7

Musical excerpt priming the word king (rather than bird). (MP3 192 kb)

Supplementary Audio 8

Musical excerpt priming the word illusion (rather than reality). (MP3 252 kb)

Supplementary Audio 9

Musical excerpt priming the word devotion (rather than mischief). (MP3 163 kb)

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Koelsch, S., Kasper, E., Sammler, D. et al. Music, language and meaning: brain signatures of semantic processing. Nat Neurosci 7, 302–307 (2004).

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