Neural Entrainment to the Beat: The "Missing-Pulse" Phenomenon

J Neurosci. 2017 Jun 28;37(26):6331-6341. doi: 10.1523/JNEUROSCI.2500-16.2017. Epub 2017 May 30.


Most humans have a near-automatic inclination to tap, clap, or move to the beat of music. The capacity to extract a periodic beat from a complex musical segment is remarkable, as it requires abstraction from the temporal structure of the stimulus. It has been suggested that nonlinear interactions in neural networks result in cortical oscillations at the beat frequency, and that such entrained oscillations give rise to the percept of a beat or a pulse. Here we tested this neural resonance theory using MEG recordings as female and male individuals listened to 30 s sequences of complex syncopated drumbeats designed so that they contain no net energy at the pulse frequency when measured using linear analysis. We analyzed the spectrum of the neural activity while listening and compared it to the modulation spectrum of the stimuli. We found enhanced neural response in the auditory cortex at the pulse frequency. We also showed phase locking at the times of the missing pulse, even though the pulse was absent from the stimulus itself. Moreover, the strength of this pulse response correlated with individuals' speed in finding the pulse of these stimuli, as tested in a follow-up session. These findings demonstrate that neural activity at the pulse frequency in the auditory cortex is internally generated rather than stimulus-driven. The current results are both consistent with neural resonance theory and with models based on nonlinear response of the brain to rhythmic stimuli. The results thus help narrow the search for valid models of beat perception.SIGNIFICANCE STATEMENT Humans perceive music as having a regular pulse marking equally spaced points in time, within which musical notes are temporally organized. Neural resonance theory (NRT) provides a theoretical model explaining how an internal periodic representation of a pulse may emerge through nonlinear coupling between oscillating neural systems. After testing key falsifiable predictions of NRT using MEG recordings, we demonstrate the emergence of neural oscillations at the pulse frequency, which can be related to pulse perception. These findings rule out alternative explanations for neural entrainment and provide evidence linking neural synchronization to the perception of pulse, a widely debated topic in recent years.

Keywords: MEG; auditory rhythm; neural resonance theory; oscillations; pulse.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, Non-P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Acoustic Stimulation / methods
  • Action Potentials / physiology
  • Adult
  • Auditory Cortex / physiology*
  • Auditory Perception / physiology*
  • Biological Clocks / physiology*
  • Cortical Synchronization / physiology*
  • Cues
  • Evoked Potentials, Auditory / physiology*
  • Feedback, Physiological
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Models, Neurological
  • Music
  • Periodicity*