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New research published in the journal Nature Communications has uncovered the brain mechanisms behind how we recognise and predict musical sequences.

A graphical representation of the human brain with musical notes going into it © Shutterstock

Imagine listening to your favourite song and instantly recognising it from just a few notes. How does your brain do that?

New research published in leading international journal Nature Communications has uncovered the brain mechanisms behind how we recognise and predict musical sequences.

In the new paper, researchers at the Centre for Eudaimonia and Human Flourishing, Department of Psychiatry and Linacre College, University of Oxford, and the Center for Music in the Brain, Aarhus University, used a state-of-the-art machine called magnetoencephalography (MEG) to study the brains of 83 people as they listened to previously memorised and varied melodies. The study reveals a complex network of brain areas working together to process and recognise these sounds.

Key findings

When we listen to music, our brain distinctively responds to each tone forming the memorised sequence, with the auditory cortex responding first and sending information to the hippocampus and the anterior and medial cingulate gyrus. This process, known as a "feedforward" connection, is complemented by information flowing back in the opposite direction, creating a "feedback" loop. When the brain detects a variation in the sequence, it elicits a conscious prediction error, originating once again in the auditory cortex and spreading to the hippocampus and cingulate regions. Notably, while the auditory cortex consistently responds to variations introduced at any point in the sequence, the hippocampus and cingulate gyrus show their strongest response specifically to the sound that introduces the variation.

This research integrates the predictive coding theory, which suggests that our brains are constantly making predictions about incoming sensory information. When these predictions are confirmed or contradicted, various brain regions activate in response, each with specific temporal dynamics and hierarchical relationships.

Associate Professor Leonardo Bonetti, who led the research, explained:

Discovering how the brain recognises and predict music offers unique insights into the brain mechanisms responsible for processing information which evolves over time. In a broader perspective, this research will be expanded to investigate how both pathological and non-pathological aging brains process information over time, with significant implications for studying dementia.”

Professor Morten Kringelbach, co-author of the article, adds:

Our article shows, for the first time, how musical concepts are extracted from controlled sequences of sounds, helping us elucidate how the brain creates meaning from the rich stimulation present in the environment.”

The Centre for Eudaimonia and Human Flourishing is a unique centre at the University of Oxford joining researchers from different backgrounds, spanning psychology and medicine, music and art, computer science and physics.