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J Cogn Neurosci. 2003 Jul 1;15(5):683-93.

Children processing music: electric brain responses reveal musical competence and gender differences.

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Max-Planck-Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience, Leipzig, Germany.


Numerous studies investigated physiological correlates of the processing of musical information in adults. How these correlates develop during childhood is poorly understood. In the present study, we measured event-related electric brain potentials elicited in 5- and 9-year-old children while they listened to (major-minor tonal) music. Stimuli were chord sequences, infrequently containing harmonically inappropriate chords. Our results demonstrate that the degree of (in)appropriateness of the chords modified the brain responses in both groups according to music-theoretical principles. This suggests that already 5-year-old children process music according to a well-established cognitive representation of the major-minor tonal system and according to music-syntactic regularities. Moreover, we show that, in contrast to adults, an early negative brain response was left predominant in boys, whereas it was bilateral in girls, indicating a gender difference in children processing music, and revealing that children process music with a hemispheric weighting different from that of adults. Because children process, in contrast to adults, music in the same hemispheres as they process language, results indicate that children process music and language more similarly than adults. This finding might support the notion of a common origin of music and language in the human brain, and concurs with findings that demonstrate the importance of musical features of speech for the acquisition of language.

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