Recursive music elucidates neural mechanisms supporting the generation and detection of melodic hierarchies

Brain Struct Funct. 2020 Sep;225(7):1997-2015. doi: 10.1007/s00429-020-02105-7. Epub 2020 Jun 26.


The ability to generate complex hierarchical structures is a crucial component of human cognition which can be expressed in the musical domain in the form of hierarchical melodic relations. The neural underpinnings of this ability have been investigated by comparing the perception of well-formed melodies with unexpected sequences of tones. However, these contrasts do not target specifically the representation of rules generating hierarchical structure. Here, we present a novel paradigm in which identical melodic sequences are generated in four steps, according to three different rules: The Recursive rule, generating new hierarchical levels at each step; The Iterative rule, adding tones within a fixed hierarchical level without generating new levels; and a control rule that simply repeats the third step. Using fMRI, we compared brain activity across these rules when participants are imagining the fourth step after listening to the third (generation phase), and when participants listened to a fourth step (test sound phase), either well-formed or a violation. We found that, in comparison with Repetition and Iteration, imagining the fourth step using the Recursive rule activated the superior temporal gyrus (STG). During the test sound phase, we found fronto-temporo-parietal activity and hippocampal de-activation when processing violations, but no differences between rules. STG activation during the generation phase suggests that generating new hierarchical levels from previous steps might rely on retrieving appropriate melodic hierarchy schemas. Previous findings highlighting the role of hippocampus and inferior frontal gyrus may reflect processing of unexpected melodic sequences, rather than hierarchy generation per se.

Keywords: Hierarchy; Hippocampus; IFG; Music; Recursion; STG.

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Auditory Perception / physiology*
  • Brain / diagnostic imaging*
  • Brain / physiology
  • Brain Mapping
  • Cognition / physiology
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Magnetic Resonance Imaging
  • Male
  • Music*
  • Young Adult