Neuro Notes Blog

Neelum T. Aggarwal, MD
Cognitive Neurologist
KV 265 Board Member

Dec 2012

Neelum T. Aggarwal, MD
Dear Readers,
In my previous post, I commented on how even in passive listening, various lobes of the brain —temporal, frontal, and parietal-occipital— can show activation or increased "neural" activity on brain scans. Did you notice that not only was the frontal cortex activated when our musician was "passively listening" but also the parietal-occipital areas lit up? These lobes are thought to be important for processing visual information and imagery, and what was curious, was this area was activated during the listening session even with the musician's eyes closed. What was even more surprising was that the auditory cortex, the area of the brain that processes sound, had relatively little activation compared to the other brain areas during the session. All of these findings got me wondering about the "passive process" of listening to music, and the role of mental imagery while listening to music.
The combination of these terms —music and imagery = musical imagery— was the topic of a recent article in the Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences by Zatorre. In this article the author mentions that musical imagery normally takes place when someone is asked to imagine a familiar tune and make judgment about it (i.e., its pitch, tempo, rhythm). In one set of s with human volunteers, this exercise was shown activate pathways in the brain that led from the auditory cortex to the other areas of the brain, namely the frontal cortex and parietal lobes. Interestingly when the tune was not familiar and thus no active musical imagery was taking place, there was no evidence that these areas were activated.
MRI scan of harpist listening to Bach
What does this mean? It means that when one listens to music, especially a familiar tune, there is much more happening in the brain than only activation of the auditory cortex. Rather, the auditory pathways are critical to serving as a "pass through" for auditory sounds, but it is the frontal pathways and the parietal pathways, which are critical to the ability to work with musical thoughts. Demonstration of these intricate networks at work in the brain, may shed light to the beginnings of a model that explains some aspects of creative thinking.
Want to read more? Here are 3 articles you can refer to, to learn about musical imagery:
Zatorre Robert J. Beyond auditory cortex: working with musical thoughts Ann. N.Y. Acad. Sci. 1252 (2012) 222-228
Mountain R. 2001. Composers & imagery: myths and realities. In Musical Imagery. R.I. Godoy & H. Jorgensen, Eds: 271-288. Routledge. Florence, KY
Pascual - Leonoe, A. 2003. The brain that plays music and is changed by it. In the Cognitive Neuroscience of Music. I. Peretez & R. Zatorre, EDS: 396-412. Oxford University Press. Oxford
Thanks for reading.
"Toccata and Fugue in D Minor" by Johann Sebastian Bach. A short film presented at the Executive Meeting of the Neurosurgical Society of America in Chicago, Illinois on 15 September 2012.
Edited by José Francisco Salgado with Paula E. Bressman
Photography by José Francisco Salgado, PhD
EEG by Elizabeth E. Gerard, MD
EEG processing by Mark L. Scheuer, MD at Persyst
MRI by Todd B. Parish, PhD
Music by Johann Sebastian Bach
Performed by Beyond Pluck (Paula E. Bressman and Rachel R. Miller)
Executive Producers: Anne Barlow and J. F. Salgado, KV 265