Music perception

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Dynamics of brain activity during music listening

In this study we examined how the brain reacts to authentic music score. We selected musical pieces that had a well defined musical structure. Behavioral and MEG experiments were designed using motifs within the score as recognition targets. Special analysis methods were developed that allowed the features in the sound variation and brain activations to be extracted over similar timescales, and hence for comparisons of systematic responses to be made between the music structure and its artistic expression (as expressed by the time course of the sound material) and the corresponding brain activations.


Music perception in the brain. (A) The basic structure of the motif. Line 1 shows the score musical motif. Line 2 shows the segmentation of the motif, melodic parts segments A + B, bars 4 3/4, and C + D, bars 4 1/4. Line 3 displays the groups of three notes (weak, weak, strong), and line 4 shows the individual note duration in performance. The mean duration ratio of each note in the segment is printed below the first bar of the corresponding segment. (B) Activations of temporal, frontal, parietal and cerebellar areas show very low frequency variations, suggesting they are involved in the accumulating representation of the perceptual context that is progressively set up by the continuous acoustical stream.

Frontal areas generally responded with slow time constants to the music, reflecting their more integrative mode; motor-related areas showed transient-mode responses to fine temporal scale structures of the sound. The activity in motor related structures, specifically in lateral premotor areas, supplementary motor areas, and somatomotor areas, correlated with measures of rhythmicity derived from the music. These correlations showed distinct laterality depending on how the musical performance deviated from the strict tempo of the music score, that is, depending on the musical expression.

M. Popescu et al., Neuroimage. 21, 1622-1638 (2004). PDF >>

More recently we have analyzed the unaveraged responses for each subject and computed statistically significant changes of activity between periods immediately before and after the music score and times well before the music was on. We used 500 ms windows for each comparison and by animating these windows at the tempo of the music score we have produced a nice demonstration of a correlate of human brain processing of music with simultaneous sound of the music that gave rise to it. Enjoy it!

Music in the Brain

The animation shows significant brain activations on two axial MRI slices - first slice is on the level of the cerebellum. Yellow and dashed red contours on each image encompass the regions of statistically significant (P < 0.005) activations and de-activations respectively. Red (blue) colour indicates strongest activated (de-activated) regions. The minimum and maximum t-values for each time point are given above the images. At the bottom of images, the time is given in milliseconds in respect to the beginning of the music score. The size of the red circles in the lower left corners of each image indicates the strength of the brain response at the particular time point with respect to the maximum across all time points.