Perception of hierarchical boundaries in music and its modulation by expertise

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Hierarchical structure with units of different timescales is a key feature of music. For the perception of such structures, the detection of each boundary is crucial. Here, using electroencephalography (EEG), we explore the perception of hierarchical boundaries in music, and test whether musical expertise modifies such processing. Musicians and non-musicians were presented with musical excerpts containing boundaries at three hierarchical levels, including section, phrase and period boundaries. Non-boundary was chosen as a baseline condition. Recordings from musicians showed CPS (closure positive shift) was evoked at all the three boundaries, and their amplitude increased as the hierarchical level became higher, which suggest that musicians could represent music events at different timescales in a hierarchical way. For non-musicians, the CPS was only elicited at the period boundary and undistinguishable negativities were induced at all the three boundaries. The results indicate that a different and less clear way was used by non-musicians in boundary perception. Our findings reveal, for the first time, an ERP correlate of perceiving hierarchical boundaries in music, and show that the phrasing ability could be enhanced by musical expertise.

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