Allgemeine und Biologische Psychologie


One might think that speech and music have little in common. Speech appears to be well structured following closely codified rules, a so-called grammar. Music, on the other hand, appears to be free, and there seem to be no limits set to the creative freedom of the composer and/or the performer. What about a dominant seventh chord driving a piece towards the resolution, the tonic? Doesn’t it sound like preparing the listener to the full stop at the end of a sentence? The closer one looks the more music seems to be governed by rules similar to a grammar in speech.

Cognitive processing of grammar is often studied using artificial grammars. A type of such a grammar is shown to the right: a finite state grammar. The “states” (circles) are silent. But the transitions between states may be words or sounds. Given ten minutes of listening to stimuli “composed” following the rules of such a grammar, participants will have grasped these rules implicitly. Without being able to describe the rules verbally, they will tell apart “correct” stimuli (following these rules) from “incorrect stimuli” (violating these rules).

We study the ability of participants to learn such an artificial grammar in function of the tonal material. We find that participants are able to learn these rules even if the tonal material is absolutely unfamiliar to them, stemming from exotic scales completely unrelated to the Western twelve-tone equal-temperament scale.


Artificial grammar according to Rohrmeier et al. (2011) By transiting from one node to another, a specific stimulus (e.g. a chord) is presented, as indicated by the numbers on the arcs, resulting in grammatically structured stimulus sequences.


A short demonstration of grammatical chord sequences, that were generated by the above Grammar.