Early neuronal responses in right limbic structures mediate harmony incongruity processing in musical experts

Neuroimage. 2008 Oct 1;42(4):1597-608. doi: 10.1016/j.neuroimage.2008.06.025. Epub 2008 Jul 1.


In western tonal music, musical phrases end with an explicit harmonic consequent which is highly expected. As such expectation is a consequence of musical background, cerebral processing of incongruities of musical grammar might be a function of expertise. We hypothesized that a subtle incongruity of standard closure should evoke a profound and rapid reaction in an expert's brain. If such a reaction is due to neuroplasticity as a consequence of musical training, it should be correlated with distinctive activations in sensory, motor and/or cognitive function related brain areas in response to the incongruent closure. Using event related potential (ERP) source imaging, we determined the temporal dynamics of neuronal activity in highly trained pianists and musical laymen in response to syntactic harmonic incongruities in expressive music, which were easily detected by the experts but not by the laymen. Our results revealed that closure incongruity evokes a selective early response in musical experts, characterized by a strong, right lateralized negative ERP component. Statistical source analysis could demonstrate putative contribution to the generation of this component in right temporal-limbic areas, encompassing hippocampal complex and amygdala, and in right insula. Its early onset (approximately 200 ms) preceded responses in frontal areas that may reflect more conscious processing. These results go beyond previous work demonstrating that musical training can change activity of sensory and motor areas during musical or audio-motor tasks, and suggest that functional plasticity in right medial-temporal structures and insula also modulates processing of subtle harmonic incongruities.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Acoustic Stimulation / methods*
  • Adult
  • Auditory Perception / physiology*
  • Electroencephalography / methods
  • Evoked Potentials, Auditory / physiology*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Limbic System / physiology*
  • Male
  • Music*
  • Professional Competence*
  • Task Performance and Analysis*