Music and Language in (Inter)Action

Starting out from music, this line of research explores cognitive and motoric levels of action planning in solo pianists by applying 3T fMRI and EEG during performance. Our data show evidence for hierarchical action plans—from abstract, combinatorial rules of music to concrete motor programs (Sammler, Novembre et al., 2013; Bianco et al., 2016). These levels of planning are differently weighted depending on a musician’s genre (e.g., classical or jazz; Bianco et al., 2018), and they activate distinct neural networks that converge in lateral prefrontal cortex (Bianco et al., 2020). Whether similar planning hierarchies are at play during speaking and which (additional) mechanisms support the interaction between duet or dialogue partners, are further questions in Research Area 4.

Featured Publications

Bianco, R., Novembre, G., Ringer, H., Kohler, N., Keller, P. E., Villringer, A., Sammler, D. (2020). Lateral prefrontal cortex as a hub for music production with gradation from structural rules to movement sequences. bioRxiv.

Bianco, R., Novembre, G., Keller, P. E., Scharf, F., Friederici, A. D., Villringer, A., Sammler, D. (2016). Syntax in action has priority over movement selection in piano playing: An ERP study. Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience, 28, 41–56.

Sammler, D.,* Novembre, G.,* Koelsch, S., Keller, P. E. (2013). Syntax in a pianist’s hand: ERP signatures of “embodied” syntax processing in music. Cortex, 49, 1325–1339. *equal contr.



Roberta Bianco (University College London, UK)
Peter E. Keller (Western Sydney University, Australia)
Giacomo Novembre (Italian Institute of Technology, Rome, Italy)


In the Media

The Economist

“Comparing the brain activity of jazz and classical pianists”

France Inter

„Dans la tête des pianistes“


“Brain beats: Entendre le futur”—our work on music and the brain (starting at 12’ and 20’)