Music and speech are two of the most relevant and common sounds in the human environment. Perceiving and processing these two complex acoustical signals rely on a hierarchical functional network distributed throughout several brain regions within and beyond the auditory cortices. Given their similarities, the neural bases for processing these two complex sounds overlap to a certain degree, but particular brain regions may show selectivity for one or the other acoustic category, which we aimed to identify. We examined 53 subjects (28 of them professional musicians) by functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), using a paradigm designed to identify regions showing increased activity in response to different types of musical stimuli, compared to different types of complex sounds, such as speech and non-linguistic vocalizations. We found a region in the anterior portion of the superior temporal gyrus (aSTG) (planum polare) that showed preferential activity in response to musical stimuli and was present in all our subjects, regardless of musical training, and invariant across different musical instruments (violin, piano or synthetic piano). Our data show that this cortical region is preferentially involved in processing musical, as compared to other complex sounds, suggesting a functional role as a second-order relay, possibly integrating acoustic characteristics intrinsic to music (e.g., melody extraction). Moreover, we assessed whether musical experience modulates the response of cortical regions involved in music processing and found evidence of functional differences between musicians and non-musicians during music listening. In particular, bilateral activation of the planum polare was more prevalent, but not exclusive, in musicians than non-musicians, and activation of the right posterior portion of the superior temporal gyrus (planum temporale) differed between groups. Our results provide evidence of functional specialization for music processing in specific regions of the auditory cortex and show domain-specific functional differences possibly correlated with musicianship.
Keywords: Auditory cortex; Music; Speech; fMRI; planum polare.