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The neural underpinnings of music listening under different attention conditions

Jäncke, Lutza,b,c,d; Leipold, Simona; Burkhard, Anjaa

doi: 10.1097/WNR.0000000000001019

Most studies examining the neural underpinnings of music listening have no specific instruction on how to process the presented musical pieces. In this study, we explicitly manipulated the participants’ focus of attention while they listened to the musical pieces. We used an ecologically valid experimental setting by presenting the musical stimuli simultaneously with naturalistic film sequences. In one condition, the participants were instructed to focus their attention on the musical piece (attentive listening), whereas in the second condition, the participants directed their attention to the film sequence (passive listening). We used two instrumental musical pieces: an electronic pop song, which was a major hit at the time of testing, and a classical musical piece. During music presentation, we measured electroencephalographic oscillations and responses from the autonomic nervous system (heart rate and high-frequency heart rate variability). During passive listening to the pop song, we found strong event-related synchronizations in all analyzed frequency bands (theta, lower alpha, upper alpha, lower beta, and upper beta). The neurophysiological responses during attentive listening to the pop song were similar to those of the classical musical piece during both listening conditions. Thus, the focus of attention had a strong influence on the neurophysiological responses to the pop song, but not on the responses to the classical musical piece. The electroencephalographic responses during passive listening to the pop song are interpreted as a neurophysiological and psychological state typically observed when the participants are ‘drawn into the music’.

aDivision of Neuropsychology, Department of Psychology

bInternational Normal Aging and Plasticity Imaging Center (INAPIC)

cUniversity Research Priority Program (URPP), Dynamic of Healthy Aging, University of Zurich, Zurich, Switzerland

dDepartment of Special Education, King Abdulaziz University, Jeddah, Kingdom of Saudi Arabia

Correspondence to Lutz Jäncke, PhD, Division of Neuropsychology, Department of Psychology, University of Zurich, Binzmuehlestrasse 14/Box 25, CH-8050 Zurich, Switzerland Tel: +41 44 635 7557; fax: +41 44 635 7409; e-mail:

Received February 13, 2018

Accepted March 5, 2018

© 2018 Wolters Kluwer Health | Lippincott Williams & Wilkins