Generation of novel motor sequences: The neural correlates of musical improvisation

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Abstract

While some motor behavior is instinctive and stereotyped or learned and re-executed, much action is a spontaneous response to a novel set of environmental conditions. The neural correlates of both pre-learned and cued motor sequences have been previously studied, but novel motor behavior has thus far not been examined through brain imaging. In this paper, we report a study of musical improvisation in trained pianists with functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), using improvisation as a case study of novel action generation. We demonstrate that both rhythmic (temporal) and melodic (ordinal) motor sequence creation modulate activity in a network of brain regions comprised of the dorsal premotor cortex, the rostral cingulate zone of the anterior cingulate cortex, and the inferior frontal gyrus. These findings are consistent with a role for the dorsal premotor cortex in movement coordination, the rostral cingulate zone in voluntary selection, and the inferior frontal gyrus in sequence generation. Thus, the invention of novel motor sequences in musical improvisation recruits a network of brain regions coordinated to generate possible sequences, select among them, and execute the decided-upon sequence.

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