Otto Hahn Group Neural Bases of Intonation in Speech and Music

Language and music are uniquely human forms of communication. The Otto Hahn Group actively researches the cognitive processes underlying language and music as well as the associated brain networks. We are particularly interested in melody and pitch—potential precursors of language and music—and their role in language comprehension, music production as well as interpersonal interaction. We apply neuroscientific methods (e.g., structural and functional magnetic resonance imaging, electroencephalography or transcranial magnetic stimulation) within the framework of cognitive and social psychology, linguistics (phonetics, pragmatics) and music theory.

As a whole, our research shows that communication without words—via melody and pitch, in speech and music—depends on audio-motor, socio-cognitive and affective neural networks. Their integrity and dynamic crosstalk determines the success of social interaction and mutual understanding.


Speech Communication and Prosody

Melody in speech—referred to as prosody—not only supports language comprehension but reveals a lot about attitudes and intentions of a speaker, irrespective of the spoken content. In the laboratory, we acoustically manipulate speech recordings to induce interpersonal misunderstandings, thereby revealing the neural networks that allow us to decode prosody and its social meaning. Further, we assess interindividual and cross-cultural differences in the use of and sensitivity to prosody, by testing trained actors or speakers of tonal languages such as Mandarin Chinese.

Key publications

Hellbernd, N.; Sammler, D.: Prosody conveys speaker’s intentions: Acoustic cues for speech act perception. Journal of Memory and Language 88, pp. 70 - 86 (2016)
Sammler, D.; Grosbras, M.-H.; Anwander, A.; Bestelmeyer, P. E. G.; Belin, P.: Dorsal and ventral pathways for prosody. Current Biology 25 (23), pp. 3079 - 3085 (2015)
Sammler, D.; Kotz, S. A.; Eckstein, K.; Ott, D. V. M.; Friederici, A. D.: Prosody meets syntax: The role of the corpus callosum. Brain 133 (9), pp. 2643 - 2655 (2010)

In the Media


Musical Expression

Melody in music does much more than determine aesthetic pleasure. Together with other musical parameters melody provides musicians with a scaffolding that guides their actions and coordination with other musicians during music performance. Through recordings of brain activity during piano playing—solo or in duos—we identify the neural processes allowing musicians to artistically express themselves through their music. By comparing musicians of different genres, for example, classical and jazz, we further assess training-induced differences and their impact on musical interactions.

Key publications

Bianco, R.; Novembre, G.; Keller, P. E.; Villringer, A.; Sammler, D.: Musical genre-dependent behavioural and EEG signatures of action planning: A comparison between classical and jazz pianists. NeuroImage 169, pp. 383 - 394 (2018)
Bianco, R.; Novembre, G.; Keller, P. E.; Kim, S.-G.; Scharf, F.; Friederici, A. D.; Villringer, A.; Sammler, D.: Neural networks for harmonic structure in music perception and action. NeuroImage 142, pp. 454 - 464 (2016)
Sammler, D.; Novembre, G.; Koelsch, S.; Keller, P. E.: Syntax in a pianist's hand: ERP signatures of "embodied" syntax processing in music. Cortex 49 (5), pp. 1325 - 1339 (2013)

In the Media

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