Strand C: Cognitive subproject

Music as a form of art and social behaviour is fundamentally a product of the human mind, and is destined to be received and enjoyed by the human mind. As a consequence, theoretical debates about structural dependencies in music, as well as about their computational formalisation, are both closely linked to debates about the cognitive reality behind structure in music. Because of the important role of musical expertise as well as the potential discrepancy between “structure as notated” (or composed) and “structure as perceived,” it is unclear which syntactic relationships are represented and perceived by listeners, how they are learned and processed, and whether these types of representations and processing mechanisms may be shared with other cognitive systems such as language.

At DCML, we aim to explore the cognitive reality behind music-theoretical structures in music. This empirical arm of the ERC Project on the Principles of Musical Structure Building works closely together with both the theoretical and the computational arms. We translate the theoretical advances into testable hypothesis, and utilise the computational tools to model listener’s response. Finally, we design novel experimental paradigms and test whether expert-informed, theoretical models of music carry predictive value for listeners’ behavioural and physiological responses to music.


For example, we utilised the formalism developed in the Theoretical branch (Rohrmeier, 2020) and its implementation developed in the Computational branch (Harasim, Finkensiep, Ericson, O’Donnell  & Rohrmeier, 2020) to design a new paradigm testing the perceptual reality behind hierarchical harmonic structure in music. Specifically, participants listened to short musical phrases which were stopped earlier, and were then asked to predict how many more chords they expected to come until the phrase could be complete. An example of this is shown in the following figure:


This is analogous to hearing an interrupted sentence, e.g., ‘I like pizza and…’, and being asked how many more words are needed before the sentence can be over. 

Data from 150 participants showed that a hierarchical syntax model added incremental predictive power over a sequential model when it came to predicting participants completion responses. This finding suggests that hierarchical structures are not only an elegant description of musical structure, but also carry relevance to the human cognition and perception of music.

Main Results


  • Evidence for the cognitive and perceptual reality behind syntactic structure in music
    • Herff, S. A., Harasim, D., Cecchetti, G., Finkensiep, C., & Rohrmeier, M. A. (2021). Hierarchical syntactic structure predicts listeners’ sequence completion in music. In Proceedings of the Annual Meeting of the Cognitive Science Society (Vol. 43).
    • Cecchetti G., Herff S. A., & Rohrmeier M. A. (2020). Perceptual equivalence in preparing global harmonic closure in the Jazz idiom.  Brain. Cognition. Emotion. Music., University of Kent, Canterbury,
    • Cecchetti G., Herff S. A. & Rohrmeier M. A. (2021). Hearing harmonic functionality in the idiom of extended tonality: Perceptual manifestation of octatonic substitutions. ICMPC/ESCOM 2021.
    • Cecchetti G., Herff S. A. & Rohrmeier M. A. (2021). Robustness to interference in memory performance and syntactic representations of melodies. ICMPC/ESCOM 2021
  • Evidence for syntactic revision in music
    • Cecchetti G., Herff S. A., & Rohrmeier M. A. (2020). Syntactic revision of tonal melodies as a perceptual phenomenon. Australian Music and Psychology Society
    • Cecchetti G., Herff S. A. & Rohrmeier M. A. (2021). Musical syntactic revision in the perception of melodies. ICMPC/ESCOM 2021.
  • Evidence for the importance of voice leading in the perceptual processing of Western polyphonic music
    • Wall, L., Lieck, R., Neuwirth, M., & Rohrmeier, M. (2020). the impact of Voice Leading and Harmony on Musical expectancy. Scientific reports10(1), 1-8.


  • Dataset of 150 listeners’ responses completion prediction to short musical phrases in the Jazz idiom
  • Dataset of 62 listeners’ grammatical revision in music
  • Dataset of 34 listeners’ responses in a perceptual voice leading task