Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience
Recent studies have shown that music is capable of conveying semantically meaningful concepts. Several questions have subsequently arisen particularly with regard to the precise mechanisms underlying the communication of musical meaning as well as the role of specific musical features. The present article reports three studies investigating the role of affect expressed by various musical features in priming subsequent word processing at the semantic level. By means of an affective priming paradigm, it was shown that both musically trained and untrained participants evaluated emotional words congruous to the affect expressed by a preceding chord faster than words incongruous to the preceding chord. This behavioral effect was accompanied by an N400, an ERP typically linked with semantic processing, which was specifically modulated by the (mis)match between the prime and the target. This finding was shown for the musical parameter of consonance/dissonance (Experiment 1) and then extended to mode (major/minor) (Experiment 2) and timbre (Experiment 3). Seeing that the N400 is taken to reflect the processing of meaning, the present findings suggest that the emotional expression of single musical features is understood by listeners as such and is probably processed on a level akin to other affective communications (i.e., prosody or vocalizations) because it interferes with subsequent semantic processing. There were no group differences, suggesting that musical expertise does not have an influence on the processing of emotional expression in music and its semantic connotations.