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Most listeners have an implicit understanding of the rules that govern how music unfolds over time. This knowledge is acquired in part through statistical learning, a robust learning mechanism that allows individuals to extract regularities from the environment. However, it is presently unclear how this prior musical knowledge might facilitate or interfere with the learning of novel tone sequences that do not conform to familiar musical rules. In the present experiment, participants listened to novel, statistically structured tone sequences composed of pitch intervals not typically found in Western music. Between participants, the tone sequences either had the timbre of artificial, computerized instruments or familiar instruments (piano or violin). Knowledge of the statistical regularities was measured as by a two-alternative forced choice recognition task, requiring discrimination between novel sequences that followed versus violated the statistical structure, assessed at three time points (immediately post-training, as well as one day and one week post-training). Compared to artificial instruments, training on familiar instruments resulted in reduced accuracy. Moreover, sequences from familiar instruments - but not artificial instruments - were more likely to be judged as grammatical when they contained intervals that approximated those commonly used in Western music, even though this cue was non-informative. Overall, these results demonstrate that instrument familiarity can interfere with the learning of novel statistical regularities, presumably through biasing memory representations to be aligned with Western musical structures. These results demonstrate that real-world experience influences statistical learning in a non-linguistic domain, supporting the view that statistical learning involves the continuous updating of existing representations, rather than the establishment of entirely novel ones.

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Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 4.0 License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 4.0 License.

Citation of this paper:

Stephen C. Van Hedger, Ingrid S. Johnsrude, Laura J. Batterink, Musical instrument familiarity affects statistical learning of tone sequences, Cognition, Volume 218, 2022, 104949, ISSN 0010-0277, (

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