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Re: On the Grammar of Music

About this study:

At 15:13 25/04/01 +0200, you wrote:
The study mentioned below is a remarkable one, indeed. [Maess, B., Koelsch,
S., Gunter, T. C. and Friederici, A. D. Musical Syntax is processed in
Broca's area: an MEG study. Nature Neuroscience 4, 540-545 (2001).]

I really don't think that the authors claim what is attributed to them, that music is language--certainly nothing that simplistic (please read the study!!)

From: John Hershey <jhershey@cogsci.ucsd.edu>

> according to this study music is language, although the converse is not
> clear.

However, I have a comment about this comment:

The authors claim to have found evidence for their assumption that there is
a grammar of musical chords, even in non-musicians.

This assumption is all the more remarkable, as musicians themselves consider
such grammars as theoretical artefacts or, at best, as a matter of personal

I'm a little confused about why this would be controversial...especially among musicians. Surely you don't need an ERP study to tell you that there is some sort of grammar of chords in tonal music, or more generally a rule-based system in music. All you need is to demonstrate that people are able to notice a "wrong note" in a passage of music they have never heard before. (This has been shown many times by lots of different people) When that happens, doesn't it demonstrate that there's an underlying structure or syntax which the nervous system is able to abstract, and therefore notice when it has been violated?
This is not to say that there is only one "correct answer" in a given passage, which is a common misinterpretation of these sort of results. But given a particular chord progression within a particular style of music that a listener is familiar with, there are clearly expectancies as to which chord should follow after you've heard a certain sequence of them. This is what this study is looking at; they used the existence of the ability to detect these deviations as a means of examining the brain activity associated with the process.

But, no worry, these authors haven't found what they claim to have found.
What they really found is that off-scale notes in a sequence of chords can
produce similar brain activity as nonsense words in a sentence.

Their conclusion is that music is processed like a language and chords are
governed by grammar. Anybody may compare that with his or her own

Actually, their results seem to suggest that there may be two parallel systems with similar localization of critical regions, but with different hemispheric weightings, which is very interesting. To what extent these results are specific to rule-based systems in speech and music, as opposed to more general sensitivity to patterned events and violations of expectancies remains to be seen, in my opinion.


Martin Braun
Neuroscience of Music
Gansbyn 14
S-671 95 Klässbol


Robert J. Zatorre, Ph.D.
Montreal Neurological Institute
3801 University St.
Montreal, QC Canada H3A 2B4
phone: 1-514-398-8903
fax: 1-514-398-1338
e-mail: md37@musica.mcgill.ca
web site: www.zlab.mcgill.ca