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Difficult grammar affects music experience

Listening to music while reading affects how you hear the music. Language scientists and neuroscientists from Radboud University and the Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics published this finding in Royal Society Open Science.
Difficult grammar affects music experience

“The neural pathways for language and music share a crossroads,” says lead author Richard Kunert. “This had been shown in previous research, but these studies focused on the effect of simultaneous reading and listening on language processing. Until now, the effect of this multitasking on the neural processing of music has been predicted only in theory.”

In their experiment, participants read several phrases, some of which were grammatically simple, and others which were grammatically complicated. While reading, the participants listened to a short piece of music that Kunert himself composed. Afterwards, the subjects were asked to consider the chord sequence of the music, and indicate how complete they found it to be: did it seem to stop before it got a chance to finish, or did they hear the entire sequence from beginning to end? 

Simple sentence:
The | surgeon | consoled | the | man | and | the | woman | because | the | surgery | had | not | been | successful.

Complex sentence:
The | surgeon | consoled | the | man | and | the | woman | put | her | hand | on | his | forehead. 

The experiment showed that the subjects judged the music to be less complete when reading grammatically difficult sentences than when reading simpler ones. “Previously, researchers thought that when you read and listen at the same time, you do not have enough attention to do both tasks well. With music and language, it is not about general attention, but about activity in the area of the brain that is shared by music and language,” explains Kunert. Language and music appear to be fundamentally similar in this regard. The same brain region is implicated in the processes of arranging words in a sentence and arranging tones in a chord sequence. Reading and listening at the same time overload the capacity of this brain region, known as Broca's area, which is located somewhere under your left temple.

Previously, researchers demonstrated that children with musical training were better at language than children who did not learn to play an instrument. The results of Kunert and colleagues demonstrate that the direction of this positive effect probably does not matter. Musical training enhances language skills, and language training probably enhances the neural processing of music in the same way. But engaging in language and music at the same time remains difficult for everyone – whether you are a professional guitar player or have no musical talent at all. 

More information

  • Kunert, Richard, Roel M. Willems, and Peter Hagoort. 2016. “Language Influences Music Harmony Perception: Effects of Shared Syntactic Integration Resources beyond Attention.” Royal Society Open Science 3 (2): 150685. doi:10.1098/rsos.150685.
  • Richard Kunert (, +31 (0)6 8336 0416
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The Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics is an institute of the German Max Planck Society. Our mission is to undertake basic research into the psychological,social and biological foundations of language. The goal is to understand how our minds and brains process language, how language interacts with other aspects of mind, and how we can learn languages of quite different types.

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