Impaired explicit processing of musical syntax and tonality in a group of Mandarin-speaking congenital amusics

Cunmei Jiang*, Fang Liu, William Forde Thompson

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

11 Citations (Scopus)
15 Downloads (Pure)


We examined explicit processing of musical syntax and tonality in a group of Han Chinese Mandarin speakers with congenital amusia, and the extent to which pitch discrimination impairments were associated with syntax and tonality processing. In Experiment 1, we assessed whether congenital amusia is associated with impaired explicit processing of musical syntax. Congruity ratings were examined for syntactically regular or irregular endings in harmonic and melodic contexts. Unlike controls, amusic participants failed to explicitly distinguish regular from irregular endings in both contexts. Surprisingly however, a concurrent manipulation of pitch distance did not affect the processing of musical syntax for amusics, and their impaired music-syntactic processing was uncorrelated with their pitch discrimination thresholds. In Experiment 2, we assessed tonality perception using a probe-tone paradigm. Recovery of the tonal hierarchy was less evident for the amusic group than for the control group, and this reduced sensitivity to tonality in amusia was also unrelated to poor pitch discrimination. These findings support the view that music structure is processed by cognitive and neural resources that operate independently of pitch discrimination, and that these resources are impaired in explicit judgments for individuals with congenital amusia.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)401-413
Number of pages13
JournalMusic Perception
Issue number4
Publication statusPublished - Apr 2016

Bibliographical note

Published as Music Perception: An Interdisciplinary Journal, Vol. 33 No. 4, April 2016; (pp. 401-413) DOI: 10.1525/MP.2016.33.4.401. © 2016 by the Regents of the University of California. Copying and permissions notice: Authorization to copy this content beyond fair use (as specified in Sections 107 and 108 of the U. S. Copyright Law) for internal or personal use, or the internal or personal use of specific clients, is granted by the Regents of the University of California for libraries and other users, provided that they are registered with and pay the specified fee via Rightslink® on Caliber ( or directly with the Copyright Clearance Center,


  • congenital amusia
  • musical syntax
  • pitch deficits
  • tonality perception
  • chord and melody


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