Can Attentively Listening To Music Affect Certain Brain Responses?

31 Jul

ERP studies have been fruitful in their attempt to illustrate particular brain responses to music.  Researchers have used ERP paradigms to look at how harmonic syntax in music and the violations of this harmonic syntax might evoke specific brain responses.  For example, previous research found a specific neural response associated with a violation of western harmony called the Early Right Anterior Negativity (ERAN).  This response occurs in the right-hemisphere of the brain at around 150–250 ms after the onset of the violating or “deviant” chord in a diatonic chord progression.  The study showed this response was greater in musicians than non-musicians but was inconclusive on whether this response was automatic or required subject attention.  As a follow-up study, Psyche Loui, Tineke Grent-’t-Jong, Dana Torpeya, and Marty Woldorff investigated whether listener attention could modulate specific brain responses to the violation of the harmonic syntax found in western music.  I’m interested to know what educational psychologists have to say about attentively listening to music in the classroom.

18 non-musicians participated in an ERP listening task.  The music stimuli consisted of “standard” harmonic progressions that followed the tonic-predominant-dominant relationship of western music and harmonic progressions that broke this syntax with a deviant chord (the Neapolitan Sixth chord labeled as “N6”).  Five chord progressions consisting of (I–I6–IV–V–I) or (I–I6–IV–V–N6) were used in 800 listening trials.  Two conditions were created to evaluate the affect of attention on these listening tasks.  The first condition, the “attended condition,” required participants to listen closely to the musical excerpts.  In order to enforce the participant’s attention, Loui et al interjected a “listening task” between the tests trials.  These listening tasks were comprised of the standard harmonic stimuli, but included a fade-out chord.  It was the job of the subjects to hit a button when the fade-out chord appeared.  In the “unattended condition,” the participants were required to read passages from the Graduate Record Exam.  In between trials, they were then subsequently quizzed on the reading material in order to ensure that the participants were reading.

The results found that the subjects were able to detect the N6 deviation in both the attended and unattended condition.  However, the attended condition data showed that selective attention to the music excerpts augmented the relevant neural responses to the harmonic deviant.  Analogous to previous research, the N6 chord evoked an early anterior negativity response (called the EAN) at an onset of 150 ms.  This response was amplified during the attended trials.  However, in Loui’s study, the response was not shown to be right-hemisphere dominant as illustrated in previous studies.  Instead, it was mildly dominated by the left hemisphere, challenging the paradigm that language is processed in the left hemisphere and music in the right.

Loui, P., Grent-‘t-Jong, T., Torpey, D., & Woldorff, M. (2005). Effect of attention on the neural processing of harmonic syntax in western music. Cognitive Brain Research, 25, 678-687.


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