Humans are able to find and tap to the beat of musical rhythms varying in complexity from children's songs to modern jazz. Musical beat has no one-to-one relationship with auditory features—it is an abstract perceptual representation that emerges from the interaction between sensory cues and higher-level cognitive organization. Previous investigations have examined the neural basis of beat processing but have not tested the core phenomenon of finding and tapping to the musical beat. To test this, we used fMRI and had musicians find and tap to the beat of rhythms that varied from metrically simple to metrically complex—thus from a strong to a weak beat. Unlike most previous studies, we measured beat tapping performance during scanning and controlled for possible effects of scanner noise on beat perception. Results showed that beat finding and tapping recruited largely overlapping brain regions, including the superior temporal gyrus (STG), premotor cortex, and ventrolateral PFC (VLPFC). Beat tapping activity in STG and VLPFC was correlated with both perception and performance, suggesting that they are important for retrieving, selecting, and maintaining the musical beat. In contrast BG activity was similar in all conditions and was not correlated with either perception or production, suggesting that it may be involved in detecting auditory temporal regularity or in associating auditory stimuli with a motor response. Importantly, functional connectivity analyses showed that these systems interact, indicating that more basic sensorimotor mechanisms instantiated in the BG work in tandem with higher-order cognitive mechanisms in PFC.

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