Human brain basis of musical rhythm perception: common and distinct neural substrates for meter, tempo, and pattern

Brain Sci. 2014 Jun 17;4(2):428-52. doi: 10.3390/brainsci4020428.


Rhythm as the time structure of music is composed of distinct temporal components such as pattern, meter, and tempo. Each feature requires different computational processes: meter involves representing repeating cycles of strong and weak beats; pattern involves representing intervals at each local time point which vary in length across segments and are linked hierarchically; and tempo requires representing frequency rates of underlying pulse structures. We explored whether distinct rhythmic elements engage different neural mechanisms by recording brain activity of adult musicians and non-musicians with positron emission tomography (PET) as they made covert same-different discriminations of (a) pairs of rhythmic, monotonic tone sequences representing changes in pattern, tempo, and meter, and (b) pairs of isochronous melodies. Common to pattern, meter, and tempo tasks were focal activities in right, or bilateral, areas of frontal, cingulate, parietal, prefrontal, temporal, and cerebellar cortices. Meter processing alone activated areas in right prefrontal and inferior frontal cortex associated with more cognitive and abstract representations. Pattern processing alone recruited right cortical areas involved in different kinds of auditory processing. Tempo processing alone engaged mechanisms subserving somatosensory and premotor information (e.g., posterior insula, postcentral gyrus). Melody produced activity different from the rhythm conditions (e.g., right anterior insula and various cerebellar areas). These exploratory findings suggest the outlines of some distinct neural components underlying the components of rhythmic structure.