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Cerebral Substrates of Musical Imagery


Address for correspondence: Andrea R. Halpern, Psychology Department, Bucknell University, Lewisburg, PA 17837. Voice: 570-577-1295; fax: 570-577-7007;


Abstract: Musical imagery refers to the experience of “replaying” music by imagining it inside the head. Whereas visual imagery has been extensively studied, few people have investigated imagery in the auditory domain. This article reviews a program of research that has tried to characterize auditory imagery for music using both behavioral and cognitive neuroscientific tools. I begin by describing some of my behavioral studies of the mental analogues of musical tempo, pitch, and temporal extent. I then describe four studies using three techniques that examine the correspondence of brain involvement in actually perceiving vs. imagining familiar music. These involve one lesion study with epilepsy surgery patients, two positron emission tomography (PET) studies, and one study using transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS). The studies converge on the importance of the right temporal neocortex and other right-hemisphere structures in the processing of both perceived and imagined nonverbal music. Perceiving and imagining songs that have words also involve structures in the left hemisphere. The supplementary motor area (SMA) is activated during musical imagery; it may mediate rehearsal that involves motor programs, such as imagined humming. Future studies are suggested that would involve imagery of sounds that cannot be produced by the vocal tract to clarify the role of the SMA in auditory imagery.