Symposium: MMN, music, and life span
Wednesday, Sep 9, 2015
Hörsaal 3

Effects of age and music expertise on Western music chord processing

Paula Virtala1, Minna Huotilainen2, & Mari Tervaniemi3

1Cognitive Brain Research Unit, Institute of Behavioral Sciences, University of Helsinki, University of Helsinki, Finland
2Finnish Institute of Occupational Health, Finland
3Institute of Behavioural Sciences, University of Helsinki, Helsinki, Finland

We summarize the results of a project where processing of Western music chords was examined with an abstract mismatch negativity (MMN) paradigm. The studies included three age groups: newborn infants, school-aged children and adults. Children with and without music training and musician and non-musician adults were compared. Adults participated in an additional behavioural chord detection task. In the MMN paradigm, minor chords, 2nd inversions of major chords, and highly dissonant chords were presented infrequently in the context of root form major chords in passive listening conditions. All chords were presented randomly from various frequency levels so that no novel frequencies appeared in the deviant chord types. The results demonstrate readiness for discriminating between Western music chord types already in newborns as evidenced by MMN-like responses to minor and highly dissonant chords. The results also show the facilitating effect of music expertise on chord processing in children and adults. In childhood, only the children with music training had MMNs in response to minor chords. In adults, there was some evidence of major/minor discrimination also without extensive music training. MMNs in response to 2nd inversions of major chords were evident in adult musicians only. The results show that while already newborn infants have many auditory processing skills, enculturation and formal training shape the brains responses to music sounds. Consistent neural representations of complex sounds may require extensive formal training. The studies demonstrate that MMN can be studied with complex, natural paradigms and used in studies of small infants.