Deficits for pitch structure processing in congenital amusia has been mostly reported for melodic stimuli and explicit judgments. The present study investigated congenital amusia with harmonic stimuli and a priming task. Amusic and control participants performed a speeded phoneme discrimination task on sung chord sequences. The target phoneme was sung either on a functionally important chord (tonic chord, referred to as "related target") or a less important one (subdominant chord, referred to as "less-related target"). Correct response times were faster when the target phoneme was sung on tonic chords rather than on subdominant chords, and this effect was less pronounced, albeit significant, in amusic participants. These data report for the first time a deficit in congenital amusia for chord processing, but also provide evidence that, despite this deficit, amusic individuals have internalized sophisticated syntactic-like functions of chords in the Western tonal musical system. This finding suggests that thanks to this musical knowledge, amusic individuals could develop expectancies for musical events, and, presumably, follow the tension-relaxation schemas in Western tonal music, which also influence emotional responses to music.
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