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Investigating the meaning of music using EEG and fMRI


Steinbeis,  Nikolaus
Max Planck Research Group Neurocognition of Music, MPI for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences, Max Planck Society;

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Steinbeis, N. (2008). Investigating the meaning of music using EEG and fMRI. PhD Thesis, Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences, Leipzig.

Cite as: http://hdl.handle.net/11858/00-001M-0000-0010-BF7F-D
The aim of the dissertation was to investigate the nature of meaning which can be communicated by music. Several musical routes to meaning, which have been hypothesised in the literature but so far not researched, were considered and investigated, specifically the roles of emotion and tension-resolution patterns. In addition the dissertation investigated the comparability of how meaning is represented in both music and language, as indicated by associated neural signatures. The role of musical training was also investigated with regards to the emotional route as well as the representation of meaning. The expression of emotions in music has long been considered to communicate meaningful information to listeners. This was studied in three separate experiments each using one of three musical features linked with emotional expression (harmonic roughness, harmonic intervals, instrumental timbre) and manipulating chords according to each of these. Using an affective priming paradigm, chord primes were paired with word targets, which were either congruous or incongruous in valence. Behavioural and electrophysiological responses (specifically event-related potentials, ERPs) revealed that the emotion expressed by a single chord can modulate processing the meaning of subsequently presented words, which in turn could be shown for each of the three features under investigation. No differences as a function of musical training were found. In a further experiment the ability of tension-resolution patterns in communicating meaning was studied using an interactive paradigm with chord sequences and sentences containing different types of violations. Analysis of electrophysiological responses showed that an ERP in response to the violation of harmonic expectations could be modulated specifically by semantic anomalies occuring in simultaneously presentated sentences. This was taken to suggest that language and music share neural resources for processing meaning and that tension-resolution patterns can communicate meaning to listeners familiar with Western music. The comparability of how meaning is represented in both music and language was studied using an affective priming paradigm similar to Experiments 1-3 but using chords as targets and words as primes. The analysis of ERPs showed that only musically trained participants displayed an N400 in response to incongruous chord targets, comparable to that found for incongruous target words. A subsequent fMRI study revealed that whereas incongruous word targets activate the posterior middle temporal gyrus (MTG) involved in mapping perceptual input to its lexicosemantic meaning, incongruous chords activated the posterior superior temporal sulcus (STS) involved in identifying potentially meaningful information in one’s surroundings. The data speak for a certain similarity in the way meaning is represented in language and music, but also highlight important functional differences.