This Is Sting's Brain On Music: Measuring the representational space of music with fMRI

" Localization of music related listening versus silence. Significant differences of fMRI BOLD activity during listening to 16 familiar songs are compared to a set of quiet resting conditions (p < 0.001, cluster >10 voxels). Results are projected onto the surface of the participant’s own structural MRI scan for visualization." image credit: Daniel J. Levitin & Scott T. Grafton (altered by me)

One of my favorite writers on music and the brain, Daniel J. Levitin, also counts Sting among his fans. When Sting's recent tour took him to Montreal, home of McGill University where Dr. Levintin works, he reached out to Levintin and they got together for some fun along with Scott T. Grafton of the University of Santa Barbara who co-authored this research paper;

"We used state of the art multivoxel pattern analysis (MVPA) and representational dissimilarity analysis (RDA) in a fixed set of brain regions to test three exploratory hypotheses with the musician Sting: (1) Composing would recruit neutral structures that are both unique and distinguishable from other creative acts, such as composing prose or visual art; (2) listening and imagining music would recruit similar neural regions, indicating that musical memory shares anatomical substrates with music listening; (3) the MVPA and RDA results would help us to map the representational space for music, revealing which musical pieces and genres are perceived to be similar in the musician’s mental models for music."
What did they find in Sting's brain?
"Our hypotheses were confirmed. The act of composing, and even of imagining elements of the composed piece separately, such as melody and rhythm, activated a similar cluster of brain regions, and were distinct from prose and visual art. Listened and imagined music showed high similarity, and in addition, notable similarity/dissimilarity patterns emerged among the various pieces used as stimuli: Muzak and Top 100/Pop songs were far from all other musical styles in Mahalanobis distance (Euclidean representational space), whereas jazz, R&B, tango and rock were comparatively close. Closer inspection revealed principaled explanations for the similarity clusters found, based on key, tempo, motif, and orchestration."
I found this part particularly fascinating, "Listened and imagined music showed high similarity...". Could this help explain why some/many musicians are not also audiophiles? If by imagining music you can 'light up' the same areas of the brain as when actually listening to music, who needs the latter?

I know, people like me!

"Multivoxel pattern analysis distances during listening to different music styles. (a) The Mahalanobis distance between the MVPA of each pair of conditions is summarized (yellow, large distance, blue 0 distance). (b) The same distances replotted as a dendrogram (a.u., arbitrary units)." image credit: Daniel J. Levitin & Scott T. Grafton

If we dig depper into this study, we find many more nuggets of knowledge:

"In contrast to these other stimuli, representations of music retrieved from memory have been shown to preserve many of the details of heard music. Participants who produced songs from memory (by singing, humming or whistling) tended to do so at the correct pitch and tempo, a feat not reducible to motor memory. Brief snippets of music can be recognized by timbre alone, even when played backwards, or at a duration so short, 100–400 ms, that no rhythm or melody has time to develop. Participants unselected for musical ability were able to accurately identify familiar melodies from pitch or rhythm alone, suggesting that a single feature or dimension can activate a mental representation that is satisfied with a 'nearest exemplar' kind of heuristic. Our mental representations for music have been shown to incorporate certain regularities of the physical world such as self-similarity, as evidenced by the ability to model the rhythmic structure of compositions spanning 400 years, across styles and genres, with a 1/ƒ distribution."
These facts come to a much brighter light when contrasted with the (silly) notion of some people who, when writing about hi-fi, talk about "The frailty of auditory perception." Our auditory memory is capable of being not only not-frail, but rather extraordinary!

I'd recommend reading "Measuring the representational space of music with fMRI: a case study with Sting" by Daniel J. Levintin and Scott T. Grafton in its entirety.

See our previous posts on Daniel J. Levintin's books The World In Six Songs and This Is Your Brain On Music.

Bill Leebens's picture

...I was always sorry that the clinic didn't have the resources to get into fMRI work. It was too busy booking as many scans as possible, just to survive.

There has been some pushback lately on possible errors in the basic detection software in fMRI, but hey---it's better than what we had before.

solarophile's picture

Study looks interesting and a good read. Be careful Michael about that summary paragraph. The study is about brain mapping though and does not speak about things like auditory thresholds. These are very different and I think it would be inaccurate to confuse the two.

Michael Lavorgna's picture summary.