The Sweet Sounds of Syntax: Music, Language, and the Investigation of Hierarchical Processing

  • Lee Whitehorne University of Victoria
Keywords: music cognition, music perception, syntax, generative grammar, structural processing


Language and music are uniquely human faculties, defined by a level of sophistication found only
in our species. The ability to productively combine contrastive units of sound, namely words in
language and notes in music, underlies much of the vast communicative and expressive capacities of
these systems. Though the intrinsic rules of syntax in language and music differ in many regards,
they both lead to the construction of complex hierarchies of interconnected, functional units. Much
research has examined the overlap, distinction, and general neuropsychological nature of syntax
in language and music but, in comparison to the psycholinguistic study of sentence processing,
musical structure has been regarded at a coarse level of detail, especially in terms of hierarchical
dependencies. The current research synthesizes recent ideas from the fields of generative music theory,
linguistic syntax, and neurolinguistics to outline a more detailed, hierarchy-based methodology for
investigating the brain’s processing of structures in music.

Author Biography

Lee Whitehorne, University of Victoria
Undergraduate student, Department of Linguistics
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