Finding Your Voice: A Singing Lesson From Functional Imaging

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Abstract

Vocal singing (singing with lyrics) shares features common to music and language but it is not clear to what extent they use the same brain systems, particularly at the higher cortical level, and how this varies with expertise. Twenty-six participants of varying singing ability performed two functional imaging tasks. The first examined covert generative language using orthographic lexical retrieval while the second required covert vocal singing of a well-known song. The neural networks subserving covert vocal singing and language were found to be proximally located, and their extent of cortical overlap varied with singing expertise. Nonexpert singers showed greater engagement of their language network during vocal singing, likely accounting for their less tuneful performance. In contrast, expert singers showed a more unilateral pattern of activation associated with reduced engagement of the right frontal lobe. The findings indicate that singing expertise promotes independence from the language network with decoupling producing more tuneful performance. This means that the age-old singing practice of ‘finding your singing voice’ may be neurologically mediated by changing how strongly singing is coupled to the language system. Hum Brain Mapp, 2011. © 2010 Wiley Periodicals, Inc.

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