Kristin Weineck1,2, Olivia Xin Wen1, Molly J. Henry2
Research Group “Neural and Environmental Rhythms”, Max Planck Institute for Empirical Aesthetics, Frankfurt am Main, Germany
2Institute for Cell Biology and Neuroscience, Goethe University Frankfurt am Main, Frankfurt am Main, Germany

Neural activity in the auditory system can synchronize to the rhythms of sounds, and successful synchronization improves perception. In the context of natural sounds, most previous studies have investigated neural tracking of speech, whereas only a few studies have examined neural responses to natural (polyphonic) music. Similar to speech-tracking studies, music-tracking studies often investigated neural tracking of the music amplitude envelope. We hypothesized that the envelope alone might not best capture the acoustic fluctuations in music that evoke neural synchronization. This study aimed to investigate 1) neural tracking of different music features, 2) tempo-dependence of neural tracking, and 3) the correlation between neural tracking and behavioral responses to music. We conducted an EEG study, where 37 participants listened to music segments (without vocals) at parametrically varied rates (1-4Hz). Each trial consisted of the presentation of one music stimulus (attentive listening, no movement), a partial repetition of the same stimulus (finger tapping to the beat) and behavioral music ratings (enjoyment, familiarity and beat tapping difficulty). We applied converging neural analyses based on 1) temporal response functions and 2) Reliable Components Analysis combined with stimulus–response coherence and correlation. Our results demonstrate that spectral changes in music (“spectral novelty”), as opposed to the amplitude envelope, evoke the most reliable synchronized neural response. Moreover, music with slower beat rates elicited strongest neural synchronization. We also found that neural synchronization was stronger for familiar than for unfamiliar music. Furthermore, a classifier analysis revealed that neural responses to music presented at a single tempo predicted the tempo that the participant would later tap, i.e., whether they tapped the stimulus tempo vs. double or half that rate. Overall, our results indicate that there are tempo-dependent effects on neural synchronization during natural music listening and that spectral fluctuations in music may be critical for communicating the beat.

Acknowledgements: This work was funded by the European Research Council starter grant from Molly Henry.