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PLoS One. 2008 Jul 9;3(7):e2631. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0002631.

Effects of unexpected chords and of performer's expression on brain responses and electrodermal activity.

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Department of Psychology, University of Sussex, Brighton, United Kingdom.



There is lack of neuroscientific studies investigating music processing with naturalistic stimuli, and brain responses to real music are, thus, largely unknown.


This study investigates event-related brain potentials (ERPs), skin conductance responses (SCRs) and heart rate (HR) elicited by unexpected chords of piano sonatas as they were originally arranged by composers, and as they were played by professional pianists. From the musical excerpts played by the pianists (with emotional expression), we also created versions without variations in tempo and loudness (without musical expression) to investigate effects of musical expression on ERPs and SCRs. Compared to expected chords, unexpected chords elicited an early right anterior negativity (ERAN, reflecting music-syntactic processing) and an N5 (reflecting processing of meaning information) in the ERPs, as well as clear changes in the SCRs (reflecting that unexpected chords also elicited emotional responses). The ERAN was not influenced by emotional expression, whereas N5 potentials elicited by chords in general (regardless of their chord function) differed between the expressive and the non-expressive condition.


These results show that the neural mechanisms of music-syntactic processing operate independently of the emotional qualities of a stimulus, justifying the use of stimuli without emotional expression to investigate the cognitive processing of musical structure. Moreover, the data indicate that musical expression affects the neural mechanisms underlying the processing of musical meaning. Our data are the first to reveal influences of musical performance on ERPs and SCRs, and to show physiological responses to unexpected chords in naturalistic music.

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