ISCA Workshop on Plasticity in Speech Perception (PSP2005)

Senate House, London, UK
June 15-17, 2005

Acquisition of Musical Grammar: Is Adolescence a Sensitive Period?

Annabel Cohen, Elizabeth McFadden, Betty Bailey

University of Prince Edward Island, Canada

Adolescents seem to soak up popular music with the ease of children acquiring language. The linguistic ability has long been associated with an early sensitive period of plasticity for language acquisition. Here we raise the possibility of a sensitive period for music acquisition, focusing in particular on adolescence. The notion of adolescence as a sensitive period for music is consistent with evidence for adolescent brain plasticity observed in longitudinal fMRI studies of Giedd, et al.(1999) and with the view of an adolescent critical period during which certain exposure has lifelong impact, such as in formation of addictions (Dahl & Spear, 2004). A Plasticity Framework for Music Grammar Acquisition (Cohen, 2000) was proposed to direct and accommodate our program of cross-sectional lifespan research on music style. The Framework assumes that exposure to music during a sensitive period readies the brain for particular musical structures. This žsetting of parametersÓ of the grammar then has lifelong influence. Only musical styles that match the grammar can be readily encoded. Encoding enables recognition memory. Most of our empirical research entails two successive tasks: first a familiarity or preference rating of excerpts of popular music spanning 10 decades, and. second, a surprise immediate recognition test of the excerpts (with stylistically comparable foils). Differences in recognition performance arise as an interaction of the decade of popularity of the music and age cohort. Young children seem open to all styles whereas older age groups show priority for the music of their adolescence and early adulthood. These results are consistent with the notion of two sensitive periods for music acquisition: the first in early childhood for a basic musical grammar and the second in adolescence for vernacular stylistic and emotional aspects of the music are represented. We have recently taken a second empirical approach that compares different age groups on recognition of native music and non-native music and native and non-native language. Preliminary data which will be reported is consistent with the hypothesis of advantages for music during childhood and adolescence.


Cohen, A. J. (2000). Development of tonality induction: Plasticity, exposure, and training. Music Perception, 17, 437-459.

Dahl, R.E. & Spear, L. P. (2004). Adolescent brain development: Vulnerabilities and opportunities. N.Y.: New York Academy of Sciences.

Giedd, J. N. et al. (1999). Brain development during childhood and adolescence: A longitudial MRI study. Nature Neuroscience, 2, 861-863.

Full Paper

Bibliographic reference.  Cohen, Annabel / McFadden, Elizabeth / Bailey, Betty (2005): "Acquisition of musical grammar: is adolescence a sensitive period?", In PSP2005, 27-30.