Free, i.e. non-externally cued generation of movement sequences is fundamental to human behavior. We have earlier hypothesized that the dorsal premotor cortex (PMD), which has been consistently implicated in cognitive aspects of planning and selection of spatial motor sequences may be particularly important for the free generation of spatial movement sequences, whereas the pre-supplementary motor area (pre-SMA), which shows increased activation during perception, learning and reproduction of temporal sequences, may contribute more to the generation of temporal structures. Here we test this hypothesis using fMRI and musical improvisation in professional pianists as a model behavior. We employed a 2 × 2 factorial design with the factors Melody (Specified/Improvised) and Rhythm (Specified/Improvised). The main effect analyses partly confirmed our hypothesis: there was a main effect of Melody in the PMD; the pre-SMA was present in the main effect of Rhythm, as predicted, as well as in the main effect of Melody. A psychophysiological interaction analysis of functional connectivity demonstrated that the correlation in activity between the pre-SMA and cerebellum was higher during rhythmic improvisation than during the other conditions. In summary, there were only subtle differences in activity level between the pre-SMA and PMD during improvisation, regardless of condition. Consequently, the free generation of rhythmic and melodic structures, appears to be largely integrated processes but the functional connectivity between premotor areas and other regions may change during free generation in response to sequence-specific spatiotemporal demands.
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