We demonstrate that cortical oscillatory activity in both low (less than 8 Hz) and high (15–30 Hz) frequencies is tightly coupled to behavioral performance in musical listening, in a bidirectional manner. In light of previous work on speech, we propose a framework in which the brain exploits the temporal regularities in music to accurately parse individual notes from the sound stream using lower frequencies (entrainment) and in higher frequencies to generate temporal and content-based predictions of subsequent note events associated with predictive models.Abstract
Recent studies establish that cortical oscillations track naturalistic speech in a remarkably faithful way. Here, we test whether such neural activity, particularly low-frequency (less than 8 Hz; delta–theta) oscillations, similarly entrain to music and whether experience modifies such a cortical phenomenon. Music of varying tempi was used to test entrainment at different rates. In three magnetoencephalography experiments, we recorded from nonmusicians, as well as musicians with varying years of experience. Recordings from nonmusicians demonstrate cortical entrainment that tracks musical stimuli over a typical range of tempi, but not at tempi below 1 note per second. Importantly, the observed entrainment correlates with performance on a concurrent pitch-related behavioral task. In contrast, the data from musicians show that entrainment is enhanced by years of musical training, at all presented tempi. This suggests a bidirectional relationship between behavior and cortical entrainment, a phenomenon that has not previously been reported. Additional analyses focus on responses in the beta range (∼15–30 Hz)—often linked to delta activity in the context of temporal predictions. Our findings provide evidence that the role of beta in temporal predictions scales to the complex hierarchical rhythms in natural music and enhances processing of musical content. This study builds on important findings on brainstem plasticity and represents a compelling demonstration that cortical neural entrainment is tightly coupled to both musical training and task performance, further supporting a role for cortical oscillatory activity in music perception and cognition.