Music study on the neuroscience of imagination

“Amazing Grace.” ​​Johann Pachelbel’s “Canon in D Major.” “Baby Shark.” The songs have one thing in common: They’re all instantly recognizable.

They are so recognizable that you can likely “hear” when you think about them — even when you’re sitting in silence. But what’s happening in your brain when you imagine them? What about the moments of silence between notes of music? What’s happening in your brain then?

These questions have long perplexed scientists. However, a pair of studies published Monday in the Journal of Neuroscience has, in an unprecedented way, finally illuminated the auditory-imagination process.

These findings point to a better understanding of the neural processes involved in “the music of silence,” and give a more precise picture of the neuroscience of imagination. Ultimately, music is more than a sensory experience: Our brain attempts to predict notes even when no music is playing.

Co-author Giovanni Di Liberto, a researcher and Assistant Professor at Trinity College Dublin tells Inverse this study also serves as “a new method to study imagination.”

“The brain tries to predict upcoming music events,” Di Liberto says. “That same predictive process is, in my opinion, related to what we experience as imagination.”

What you need to know first — Central to the study is the concept of “melodic expectations.”

Our brains are very good at learning patterns and using that information to make predictions about what might happen next. For example, if you’re driving and see another car weaving dangerously in and out of traffic, you might instinctively give that car a wide berth, knowing that they could abruptly change lanes or brake unexpectedly.

The same process of recognizing patterns occurs when we listen to music, explains Di Liberto.

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