Notes in a musical scale convey different levels of stability or incompleteness, forming what is known as a tonal hierarchy. Levels of stability conveyed by these scale degrees are partly responsible for generating expectations as a melody proceeds, for emotions deriving from fulfillment (or not) of those expectations, and for judgments of overall melodic well-formedness. These functions can be extracted even during imagined music. We investigated whether patterns of neural activity in fMRI could be used to identify heard and imagined notes, and if patterns associated with heard notes could identify notes that were merely imagined. We presented trained musicians with the beginning of a scale (key and timbre were varied). The next note in the scale was either heard or imagined. A probe tone task assessed sensitivity to the tonal hierarchy, and state and trait measures of imagery were included as predictors. Multivoxel classification yielded above-chance results in primary auditory cortex (Heschl's gyrus) for heard scale-degree decoding. Imagined scale-degree decoding was successful in multiple cortical regions spanning bilateral superior temporal, inferior parietal, precentral, and inferior frontal areas. The right superior temporal gyrus yielded successful cross-decoding of heard-to-imagined scale-degree, indicating a shared pathway between tonal-hierarchy perception and imagery. Decoding in right and left superior temporal gyrus and right inferior frontal gyrus was more successful in people with more differentiated tonal hierarchies and in left inferior frontal gyrus among people with higher self-reported auditory imagery vividness, providing a link between behavioral traits and success of neural decoding. These results point to the neural specificity of imagined auditory experiences—even of such functional knowledge—but also document informative individual differences in the precision of that neural response.

You do not currently have access to this content.