Hierarchical processing in music, language, and action: Lashley revisited

Ann N Y Acad Sci. 2014 May;1316(1):87-104. doi: 10.1111/nyas.12406. Epub 2014 Apr 2.


Sixty years ago, Karl Lashley suggested that complex action sequences, from simple motor acts to language and music, are a fundamental but neglected aspect of neural function. Lashley demonstrated the inadequacy of then-standard models of associative chaining, positing a more flexible and generalized "syntax of action" necessary to encompass key aspects of language and music. He suggested that hierarchy in language and music builds upon a more basic sequential action system, and provided several concrete hypotheses about the nature of this system. Here, we review a diverse set of modern data concerning musical, linguistic, and other action processing, finding them largely consistent with an updated neuroanatomical version of Lashley's hypotheses. In particular, the lateral premotor cortex, including Broca's area, plays important roles in hierarchical processing in language, music, and at least some action sequences. Although the precise computational function of the lateral prefrontal regions in action syntax remains debated, Lashley's notion-that this cortical region implements a working-memory buffer or stack scannable by posterior and subcortical brain regions-is consistent with considerable experimental data.

Keywords: computation; hierarchy; language; music; syntax.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Frontal Lobe / physiology
  • Humans
  • Language*
  • Mirror Neurons / physiology
  • Models, Neurological
  • Motor Activity*
  • Music*