People think of both language and music as ways of communicating, but using music to order a pepperoni pizza for home delivery is unlikely to succeed, leading to the suggestion that music only conveys emotions, not actual concepts. A study in the March issue of Nature Neuroscience challenges this view by showing that certain musical passages cause brain responses similar to those caused by sentences.
Stefan Koelsch and colleagues took advantage of a neural signature of 'semantic priming' -- the ability of a sentence to activate representations of related words in the brain. Reading a sentence, such as 'The boat floats on a lake', followed by an unrelated word, like 'needle', causes an electrical response of the brain known as the N400 potential that is evoked by semantic incongruity. In the new study, the authors first showed that brief passages of classical music are reliably associated with the same words by different subjects. They then showed that music-word pairings judged incongruent in the behavioral experiment evoked N400 potentials in the brain. Because this potential is thought to be specific to semantic meaning, not violations of expectation in general, the authors conclude that music can convey concepts, not simply emotion.
Petr Janata discusses this work in an accompanying News and Views article.
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