Martin Rohrmeier

Processing of Hierarchical Structure and Non-Local Dependencies in Tonal Music

A recent study explored whether listeners perceived nonlocal dependencies using an EEG paradigm. Participants listened to original materials from two chorales by J.S. Bach as well as modified versions, which violated nonlocal dependencies while local structure was kept intact. Musicians and nonmusicians were found to be sensitive to the subtle differences between regular and irregular sequences suggesting that cognitive processes are involved that are sufficiently powerful to deal with long-distance dependencies. Additional converging computational evidence underpins that probabilistic predictive models and context-free grammars plausibly capture features of learning and processing of nonlocal musical structure. From an overarching cognitive perspective it would be surprising if the cognitive mechanisms involved in processing complex musical structure were distinct from processes that deal with hierarchical structure in language and other cognitive domains. Accordingly, music theoretical debates concerning the complexity of schema theory and principles of musical structure building may benefit from contact and contextualization with comparable insights from linguistics as well as (neuro)cognitive evidence concerning human processing capacities.