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Musical minimalism utilizes the temporal manipulation of restricted collections of rhythmic, melodic, and/or harmonic materials. One example, Steve Reich’s Piano Phase, offers listeners readily audible formal structure with unpredictable events at the local level. For example, pattern recurrences may generate strong expectations which are violated by small temporal and pitch deviations. A hyper-detailed listening strategy prompted by these minute deviations stands in contrast to the type of listening engagement typically cultivated around functional tonal Western music. Recent research has suggested that the inter-subject correlation (ISC) of electroencephalographic (EEG) responses to natural audio-visual stimuli objectively indexes a state of “engagement,” demonstrating the potential of this approach for analyzing music listening. But can ISCs capture engagement with minimalist music, which features less obvious expectation formation and has historically received a wide range of reactions? To approach this question, we collected EEG and continuous behavioral (CB) data while 30 adults listened to an excerpt from Steve Reich’s Piano Phase, as well as three controlled manipulations and a popular-music remix of the work. Our analyses reveal that EEG and CB ISC are highest for the remix stimulus and lowest for our most repetitive manipulation, no statistical differences in overall EEG ISC between our most musically meaningful manipulations and Reich’s original piece, and evidence that compositional features drove engagement in time-resolved ISC analyses. We also found that aesthetic evaluations corresponded well with overall EEG ISC. Finally we highlight co-occurrences between stimulus events and time-resolved EEG and CB ISC. We offer the CB paradigm as a useful analysis measure and note the value of minimalist compositions as a limit case for the neuroscientific study of music listening. Overall, our participants’ neural, continuous behavioral, and question responses showed strong similarities that may help refine our understanding of the type of engagement indexed by ISC for musical stimuli.


This work was originally published in Frontiers in Neuroscience, available at

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