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Cognition. 2008 Jun;107(3):1070-83. Epub 2008 Feb 20.

The tonal function of a task-irrelevant chord modulates speed of visual processing.

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  • 1Universit√© Claude Bernard Lyon 1, Neurosciences Sensorielles, Comportement, Cognition, CNRS-UMR 5020, IFR 19, 50 Avenue Tony Garnier, F-69366 Lyon Cedex 07, France.


Harmonic priming studies have provided evidence that musical expectations influence sung phoneme monitoring, with facilitated processing for phonemes sung on tonally related (expected) chords in comparison to less-related (less-expected) chords [Bigand, Tillmann, Poulin, D'Adamo, and Madurell (2001). The effect of harmonic context on phoneme monitoring in vocal music. Cognition, 81, B11-B20]. This tonal relatedness effect has suggested two interpretations: (a) processing of music and language interact at some level of processing; and (b) tonal functions of chords influence task performance via listeners' attention. Our study investigated these hypotheses by exploring whether the effect of tonal relatedness extends to the processing of visually presented syllables (Experiments 1 and 2) and geometric forms (Experiments 3 and 4). For Experiments 1-4, visual target identification was faster when the musical background fulfilled listeners' expectations (i.e., a related chord was played simultaneously). In Experiment 4, the addition of a baseline condition (i.e., without an established tonal center) further showed that the observed difference was due to a facilitation linked to the related chord and not to an inhibition or disruption caused by the less-related chord. This outcome suggests the influence of musical structures on attentional mechanisms and that these mechanisms are shared between auditory and visual modalities. The implications for research investigating neural correlates shared by music and language processing are discussed.

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