Psychology Grand Rounds

Syntax in a pianist’s hand: ERP signatures of “embodied” syntax processing in music

Syntactic operations in language and music are well established and known to be linked in cognitive and neuroanatomical terms. What remains a matter of debate is whether the notion of syntax also applies to human actions and how those may be linked to syntax in language and music. In the present talk I will present two experiments – behavioural and EEG – in which we explored syntactic processes during musical performance. Therefore, expert pianists imitated silent videos of a hand playing chord sequences in which the last chord was syntactically congruent or incongruent with the preceding harmonic context. The pattern of behavioural and electrophysiological results shows – as I will argue – that the imitation of syntactically organized musical acts evokes an anticipatory response in the pianist’s motor system. This reflects an “embodied” processing of musical syntax, i.e. the translation of the rules how chords are organized within harmonic sequences into a bodily format. Altogether, the notion of musical syntax not only applies to the auditory modality but transfers – in trained musicians – to a “grammar of musical action”.