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

Kohler, N., Novembre, G., Gugnowska, K., Keller, P. E., Villringer, A., Sammler, D. (2023). Cortico-cerebellar audio-motor regions coordinate self and other in musical joint action. Cerebral Cortex, 33(6), 2804–2822.

Gugnowska, K., Novembre, G., Kohler, N., Villringer, A., Keller, P. E., Sammler, D. (2022). Endogenous sources of interbrain synchrony in duetting pianists. Cerebral Cortex, 32(18), 4110–4127.

Bianco, R., Novembre, G., Ringer, H., Kohler, N., Keller, P. E., Villringer, A., Sammler, D. (2022). Lateral prefrontal cortex is a hub for music production from structural rules to movements. Cerebral Cortex, 32(18), 3878–3895.

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 (Italian Institute of Technology, Rome, Italy)
Peter E. Keller (Center for Music in the Brain, Aarhus University, Denmark)
Giacomo Novembre (Italian Institute of Technology, Rome, Italy)
Arno Villringer (MPI for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences, Leipzig)


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’)

Research Projects

Neural Networks for Real-Time Joint Music Performance: Piano duos in the MR-scanner

Joint music performance is a highly complex task that requires musicians to dynamically integrate self- and other-produced actions.


How do musicians attend to own and the co-performer’s sound during joint performance?

Ensemble music making requires musicians to attend to their own and their co-performers’ parts. Although it has been repeatedly shown that dividing attention worsens the task execution – musicians can create performances of excellent quality even if they need to attend to dozens of other players (e.g., in an orchestra). How is this possible?


Cognitive drivers of interbrain synchrony during musical interaction

How do musicians achieve synchrony when they perform music together?