Linguistic syncopation: Alignment of musical meter to syntactic structure and its effect on sentence processing

AbstractLanguage and music are structured at multiple temporal scales and have been characterized as having meter: a hierarchical and periodic alternation of the prominence of syllables/beats. Meter is thought to emerge from the entrainment of neural oscillators, affording temporal expectations and selective attention. Higher-levels of a metric hierarchy also tend to track syntactic phrase structure, however, it is not clear within the framework of temporal attending why this would be advantageous. Neural oscillations have recently been shown to also track syntactic phrases. We propose that meter aligns to phrase structure so as to make syntactic processing more efficient. In two experiments (both visual and auditory language), we show that certain alignments of meter to syntax influence sentence comprehension and we suggest potential mechanisms for why certain alignments tend to be preferred. Our results underline the rhythmicity of not only low-level perception but also of higher-level cognitive processing of syntactic sequences.

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