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Music and language are complex hierarchical systems in which individual elements are systematically combined to form larger, syntactic structures. Suggestions that music and language share syntactic processing resources have relied on evidence that syntactic violations in music interfere with syntactic processing in language. However, syntactic violations may affect auditory processing in non-syntactic ways, accounting for reported interference effects. To investigate the factors contributing to interference effects, we assessed recall of visually presented sentences and word-lists when accompanied by background auditory stimuli differing in syntactic structure and auditory distraction: melodies without violations, scrambled melodies, melodies that alternate in timbre, and environmental sounds. In Experiment 1, one-timbre melodies interfered with sentence recall, and increasing both syntactic complexity and distraction by scrambling melodies increased this interference. In contrast, three-timbre melodies reduced interference on sentence recall, presumably because alternating instruments interrupted auditory streaming, reducing pressure on long-distance syntactic structure building. Experiment 2 confirmed that participants were better at discriminating syntactically coherent one-timbre melodies than three-timbre melodies. Together, these results illustrate that syntactic processing and auditory streaming interact to influence sentence recall, providing implications for theories of shared syntactic processing and auditory distraction.
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