The present study investigates the effect of a change in syntactic-like musical function on event-related brain potentials (ERPs). Eight-chord piano sequences were presented to musically expert and novice listeners. Instructed to watch a movie and to ignore the musical sequences, the participants had to react when a chord was played with a different instrument than the piano. Participants were not informed that the relevant manipulation was the musical function of the last chord (target) of the sequences. The target chord acted either as a syntactically stable tonic chord (i.e., a C major chord in the key of C major) or as a less syntactically stable subdominant chord (i.e., a C major chord in the key of G major). The critical aspect of the results related to the impact such a manipulation had on the ERPs. An N5-like frontal negative component was found to be larger for subdominant than for tonic chords and attained significance only in musically expert listeners. These findings suggest that the subdominant chord is more difficult to integrate with the previous context than the tonic chord (as indexing by the observed N5) and that the processing of a small change in musical function occurs in an automatic way in musically expert listeners. The present results are discussed in relation to previous studies investigating harmonic violations with ERPs.

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