Semantics, Syntax or Neither? A Case for Resolution in the Interpretation of N500 and P600 Responses to Harmonic Incongruities
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KeywordsSemantics; Syntax; N500; P600; ERP effect; Linguistic incongruities; Music
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The processing of notes and chords which are harmonically incongruous with their context has been shown to elicit two distinct late ERP effects. These effects strongly resemble two effects associated with the processing of linguistic incongruities: a P600, resembling a typical response to syntactic incongruities in language, and an N500, evocative of the N400, which is typically elicited in response to semantic incongruities in language. Despite the robustness of these two patterns in the musical incongruity literature, no consensus has yet been reached as to the reasons for the existence of two distinct responses to harmonic incongruities. This study was the first to use behavioural and ERP data to test two possible explanations for the existence of these two patterns: the musicianship of listeners, and the resolved or unresolved nature of the harmonic incongruities. Results showed that harmonically incongruous notes and chords elicited a late positivity similar to the P600 when they were embedded within sequences which started and ended in the same key (harmonically resolved). The notes and chords which indicated that there would be no return to the original key (leaving the piece harmonically unresolved) were associated with a further P600 in musicians, but with a negativity resembling the N500 in non-musicians. We suggest that the late positivity reflects the conscious perception of a specific element as being incongruous with its context and the efforts of musicians to integrate the harmonic incongruity into its local context as a result of their analytic listening style, while the late negativity reflects the detection of the absence of resolution in non-musicians as a result of their holistic listening style.