Dynamics of brain activity underlying working memory for music in a naturalistic condition

Iballa Burunat, Vinoo Alluri, Petri Toiviainen, Jussi Numminen, Elvira Brattico

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We aimed at determining the functional neuroanatomy of working memory (WM) recognition of musical motifs that occurs while listening to music by adopting a non-standard procedure. Western tonal music provides naturally occurring repetition and variation of motifs. These serve as WM triggers, thus allowing us to study the phenomenon of motif tracking within real music. Adopting a modern tango as stimulus, a behavioural test helped to identify the stimulus motifs and build a time-course regressor of WM neural responses. This regressor was then correlated with the participants' (musicians') functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) signal obtained during a continuous listening condition. In order to fine-tune the identification of WM processes in the brain, the variance accounted for by the sensory processing of a set of the stimulus' acoustic features was pruned from participants' neurovascular responses to music. Motivic repetitions activated prefrontal and motor cortical areas, basal ganglia, medial temporal lobe (MTL) structures, and cerebellum. The findings suggest that WM processing of motifs while listening to music emerges from the integration of neural activity distributed over cognitive, motor and limbic subsystems. The recruitment of the hippocampus stands as a novel finding in auditory WM. Effective connectivity and agglomerative hierarchical clustering analyses indicate that the hippocampal connectivity is modulated by motif repetitions, showing strong connections with WM-relevant areas (dorsolateral prefrontal cortex - dlPFC, supplementary motor area - SMA, and cerebellum), which supports the role of the hippocampus in the encoding of the musical motifs in WM, and may evidence long-term memory (LTM) formation, enabled by the use of a realistic listening condition.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)254-69
Number of pages16
Publication statusPublished - Aug 2014


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