Dissociation between melodic and rhythmic processing during piano performance from musical scores

Sara L Bengtsson, Fredrik Ullén

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

70 Citations (Scopus)


When performing or perceiving music, we experience the melodic (spatial) and rhythmic aspects as a unified whole. Moreover, the motor program theory stipulates that the relative timing and the serial order of the movement are invariant features of a motor program. Still, clinical and psychophysical observations suggest independent processing of these two aspects, in both production and perception. Here, we used functional magnetic resonance imaging to dissociate between brain areas processing the melodic and the rhythmic aspects during piano playing from musical scores. This behavior requires that the pianist decodes two types of information from the score in order to produce the desired piece of music. The spatial location of a note head determines which piano key to strike, and the various features of the note, such as the stem and flags determine the timing of each key stroke. We found that the medial occipital lobe, the superior temporal lobe, the rostral cingulate cortex, the putamen and the cerebellum process the melodic information, whereas the lateral occipital and the inferior temporal cortex, the left supramarginal gyrus, the left inferior and ventral frontal gyri, the caudate nucleus, and the cerebellum process the rhythmic information. Thus, we suggest a dissociate involvement of the dorsal visual stream in the spatial pitch processing and the ventral visual stream in temporal movement preparation. We propose that this dissociate organization may be important for fast learning and flexibility in motor control.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)272-284
Number of pages13
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - Mar 2006


  • fMRI
  • Music
  • Pianists
  • Rhythm
  • Motor timing
  • Sequential movements

Cite this