Skip to Content
MIT News: 77 Mass Ave

A song in your head

Certain neurons respond only to singing.

April 27, 2022
silhouette of singer
silhouette of singer

Singing evokes a unique response in the human brain, MIT neuroscientists have found.

The researchers, led by Nancy Kanwisher and collaborator Josh McDermott, had previously identified a population of neurons in the auditory cortex that respond specifically to music by using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) on subjects as they listened to a recording of 165 sounds. But they were able to gather much more precise information by directly recording electrical activity in the brains of 15 people via electrodes placed inside their skulls to monitor epileptic seizures in the days leading up to surgery, during which time these participants listened to the same selection of sounds.

Using a novel statistical analysis that they developed to combine the new results with the fMRI data, which covered a larger portion of the brain at lower resolution, the researchers were able to infer the types of neural populations that produced the data recorded by each electrode. They were surprised to find that a population of neurons at the top of the temporal lobe lit up in response to songs but not to speech, instrumental music, or other types of sounds.

“The work provides evidence for relatively fine-grained segregation of function within the auditory cortex, in a way that aligns with an intuitive distinction within music,” says former MIT postdoc Sam Norman-Haignere, an assistant professor of neuroscience at the University of Rochester Medical Center and the lead author of the study on the new research.

The song-specific neurons may be responding to features such as the perceived pitch, or the interaction between words and perceived pitch, before sending information to other parts of the brain for further processing, the researchers say. They now hope to learn more about what aspects of singing drive the response.

Keep Reading

Most Popular

individual aging affects covid outcomes concept
individual aging affects covid outcomes concept

Anti-aging drugs are being tested as a way to treat covid

Drugs that rejuvenate our immune systems and make us biologically younger could help protect us from the disease’s worst effects.

Europe's AI Act concept
Europe's AI Act concept

A quick guide to the most important AI law you’ve never heard of

The European Union is planning new legislation aimed at curbing the worst harms associated with artificial intelligence.

Uber Autonomous Vehicles parked in a lot
Uber Autonomous Vehicles parked in a lot

It will soon be easy for self-driving cars to hide in plain sight. We shouldn’t let them.

If they ever hit our roads for real, other drivers need to know exactly what they are.

crypto winter concept
crypto winter concept

Crypto is weathering a bitter storm. Some still hold on for dear life.

When a cryptocurrency’s value is theoretical, what happens if people quit believing?

Stay connected

Illustration by Rose WongIllustration by Rose Wong

Get the latest updates from
MIT Technology Review

Discover special offers, top stories, upcoming events, and more.

Thank you for submitting your email!

Explore more newsletters

It looks like something went wrong.

We’re having trouble saving your preferences. Try refreshing this page and updating them one more time. If you continue to get this message, reach out to us at with a list of newsletters you’d like to receive.