Review Article | Published:

When the brain plays music: auditory–motor interactions in music perception and production

Nature Reviews Neuroscience volume 8, pages 547558 (2007) | Download Citation

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Abstract

Music performance is both a natural human activity, present in all societies, and one of the most complex and demanding cognitive challenges that the human mind can undertake. Unlike most other sensory–motor activities, music performance requires precise timing of several hierarchically organized actions, as well as precise control over pitch interval production, implemented through diverse effectors according to the instrument involved. We review the cognitive neuroscience literature of both motor and auditory domains, highlighting the value of studying interactions between these systems in a musical context, and propose some ideas concerning the role of the premotor cortex in integration of higher order features of music with appropriately timed and organized actions.

Key points

  • Music performance is a natural and ubiquitous human skill that requires specific and unique types of control over motor systems and perception. Current knowledge about sensory–motor interactions is highly relevant, but may not be sufficient to explain the unique demands placed on these systems by musical execution.

  • Motor control systems relevant for music involve timing, sequencing and spatial organization. The premotor and supplementary motor cortices, cerebellum, and the basal ganglia are all implicated in these motor processes, but their precise contribution varies according to the demands of the task.

  • Auditory processing pathways include dorsal and ventral streams, with the dorsal stream, which projects to parietal and premotor cortices, being particularly relevant for auditory-guided actions.

  • Motor and auditory systems interact in terms of feedforward and feedback relationships. These interactions may be related to `hearing-doing' systems, analogous to the mirror-neuron system.

  • Neuroimaging studies show that auditory and motor systems in the brain are often co-activated during music perception and performance: listening alone engages the motor system, whereas performing without feedback engages auditory systems.

  • Ventral premotor regions are active when there is direct sensorimotor mapping (for example key press associated with a sound); dorsal premotor regions are active in relation to more abstract mappings (for example metrical organization of a rhythm).

  • Neural circuitry mediating these sensory–motor interactions may contribute to music cognition by helping to create predictions and expectancies which music relies on for its intellectual and emotional appeal.

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Acknowledgements

The authors acknowledge ongoing research support from the Canadian Institutes of Health Research, the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council, and the Fonds de la Recherche en Santé du Québec. We thank C. Palmer for helpful comments on an earlier draft.

Author information

Affiliations

  1. Montreal Neurological Institute, McGill University, 3801 University Street, Montreal, Quebec, Canada.

    • Robert J. Zatorre
    •  & Joyce L. Chen
  2. BRAMS Laboratory, 1430 Mont-Royal West, Montreal, Quebec, Canada.

    • Robert J. Zatorre
    • , Joyce L. Chen
    •  & Virginia B. Penhune
  3. Psychology Department, Concordia University, 4000 Sherbrooke Street W, Montreal, Quebec Canada.

    • Virginia B. Penhune

Authors

  1. Search for Robert J. Zatorre in:

  2. Search for Joyce L. Chen in:

  3. Search for Virginia B. Penhune in:

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing financial interests.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Robert J. Zatorre.

Glossary

Rhythm

The local organization of musical time. Rhythm is the pattern of temporal intervals within a musical measure or phrase that in turn creates the perception of stronger and weaker beats.

Pitch

A percept according to which periodic sounds may be ordered from low to high. Musical pitch has complex properties related to scales, and is often represented as a helix. Perceived pitch most often corresponds to the fundamental frequency, even in its absence, owing to the presence of harmonics that are directly related to the fundamental frequency.

Kinematics

Parameters of movement through space without reference to forces (for example, direction, velocity and acceleration).

Chunking

The re-organization or re-grouping of movement sequences into smaller sub-sequences during performance. Chunking is thought to facilitate the smooth performance of complex movements and to improve motor memory.

Spectral energy

Energy contained in the frequency distribution of a given sound.

Retinotopic mapping

The organization or mapping of the visual cortex that reflects the spatial organization of visual information in the retina.

Cochleotopic mapping

The topographic organization or mapping of the auditory cortex to reflect the frequency-based representation in the cochlea.

Fundamental frequency

The frequency of a periodic sound corresponding to the lowest period or mode of vibration, and usually the primary contributor to the perception of pitch. To be distinguished from harmonic partials, which occur at integer multiples of the fundamental frequency.

Pitch constancy

The ability to perceive pitch identity across changes in acoustical properties, such as loudness, temporal envelope, or across different timbres (for example, voices or instruments).

Musical syntax

Rules governing the melodic, rhythmic and harmonic construction of music in a given musical culture.

Tapping to the beat

The ability to tap along to an identifiable repeating pulse present in many styles of music. This periodic pulse usually coincides with the strong beat of a rhythm's meter.

Mental representation

A psychological construct describing information about an object, action or percept that is thought to be encoded in the brain.

Meter

The hierarchical and periodic organization of musical time, usually extending over multiple measures or phrases. Meter is derived from the alternating patterns of strong and weak beats or pulses.

Phonemes

Individual units of speech sound that combine to make words.

Magnetoencephalography

(MEG). A non-invasive technique that allows the detection of the changing magnetic fields that are associated with brain activity on the timescale of milliseconds.

Transcranial magnetic stimulation

(TMS). A technique that is used to induce a transient interruption of normal activity in a relatively restricted area of the brain. It is based on the generation of a strong magnetic field near the area of interest, which, if changed rapidly enough, will induce an electric field that is sufficient to stimulate neurons.

Diffusion tensor imaging

(DTI). A method that can provide quantitative information with which to visualize and study connectivity and continuity of neural pathways in the central and peripheral nervous systems in vivo.

About this article

Publication history

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DOI

https://doi.org/10.1038/nrn2152

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