Mid-song gaps create similar brain patterns to imagining music

3 Aug 2021

Image: © Viacheslav Lakobchuk/Stock.adobe.com

Research with potential clinical uses compared what happens in our brains when songs cut out unexpectedly versus imagining music in our head.

Imagining music is just one of the incredible feats our brain can achieve. But what is actually going on inside our heads when we’re thinking of our favourite pop song? How does that differ from sticking in our earphones, and do the experiences overlap?

A pair of studies published today (3 August) in the Journal of Neuroscience addressed this and found important features of brain electrical activity when interacting with music.

The researchers assigned musicians to two groups. The first listened to Bach, while the second group only imagined his melodies. Both groups were hooked up to electroencephalograms (EEGs) to measure their brain activity.

The imagined music created different electrical polarity than when the musicians were actually listening to Bach, showing that different brain activation was going on. The researchers took the tests one step further, however.

When playing the music, they would cut out the track, creating silent moments in the expected melodies. When this happened, the same regions in the brain are activated as the group who were imagining music.

“Ultimately, this underlines that music is more than a sensory experience for the brain as it engages the brain in a continuous attempt of predicting upcoming musical events. Our study has isolated the neural activity produced by that prediction process,” said Giovanni Di Liberto, assistant professor in intelligent systems in Trinity College Dublin’s School of Computer Science and Statistics and a lead author of the studies.

“Our results suggest that such prediction processes are at the foundation of both music listening and imagery. We used music listening in these studies to investigate brain mechanisms of sound processing and sensory prediction, but these curious findings have wider implications – from boosting our basic, fundamental scientific understanding, to applied settings such as in clinical research.”

Some of the clinical assessment uses suggested by Di Liberto were as simple as listening to a few minutes of music while brain activity is measured with an EEG.

As this would only involve the placement of non-intrusive electrodes on the surface of the scalp, it could provide a simple solution to measuring sensory, prediction and emotional mechanisms.

And, in a not-insubstantial plus, patients might get to listen to their favourite comforting tunes while going through an assessment – a much more appealing alternative than current tasks.

Sam Cox was a journalist at Silicon Republic covering sci-tech news