Dynamic attending theory predicts that attention is allocated hierarchically across time during processing of hierarchical rhythmic structures such as musical meter. ERP research demonstrates that attention to a moment in time modulates early auditory processing as evidenced by the amplitude of the first negative peak (N1) approximately 100 msec after sound onset. ERPs elicited by tones presented at times of high and low metric strength in short melodies were compared to test the hypothesis that hierarchically structured rhythms direct attention in a manner that modulates early perceptual processing. A more negative N1 was observed for metrically strong beats compared with metrically weak beats; this result provides electrophysiological evidence that hierarchical rhythms direct attention to metrically strong times during engaged listening. The N1 effect was observed only on fast tempo trials, suggesting that listeners more consistently invoke selective processing based on hierarchical rhythms when sounds are presented rapidly. The N1 effect was not modulated by musical expertise, indicating that the allocation of attention to metrically strong times is not dependent on extensive training. Additionally, changes in P2 amplitude and a late negativity were associated with metric strength under some conditions, indicating that multiple cognitive processes are associated with metric perception.

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