The auditory scene: An fMRI study on melody and accompaniment in professional pianists

Spada, D., Verga, L., Iadanza, A., Tettamanti, M., & Perani, D. (2014). The auditory scene: An fMRI study on melody and accompaniment in professional pianists. NeuroImage, 102(2), 764-775. doi:10.1016/j.neuroimage.2014.08.036.
The auditory scene is a mental representation of individual sounds extracted from the summed sound waveform reaching the ears of the listeners. Musical contexts represent particularly complex cases of auditory scenes. In such a scenario, melody may be seen as the main object moving on a background represented by the accompaniment. Both melody and accompaniment vary in time according to harmonic rules, forming a typical texture with melody in the most prominent, salient voice. In the present sparse acquisition functional magnetic resonance imaging study, we investigated the interplay between melody and accompaniment in trained pianists, by observing the activation responses elicited by processing: (1) melody placed in the upper and lower texture voices, leading to, respectively, a higher and lower auditory salience; (2) harmonic violations occurring in either the melody, the accompaniment, or both. The results indicated that the neural activation elicited by the processing of polyphonic compositions in expert musicians depends upon the upper versus lower position of the melodic line in the texture, and showed an overall greater activation for the harmonic processing of melody over accompaniment. Both these two predominant effects were characterized by the involvement of the posterior cingulate cortex and precuneus, among other associative brain regions. We discuss the prominent role of the posterior medial cortex in the processing of melodic and harmonic information in the auditory stream, and propose to frame this processing in relation to the cognitive construction of complex multimodal sensory imagery scenes.
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