The brain needs only a fraction of a second to recognize familiar music, according to new research reports.
Researchers at UCL Ear Institute, perhaps drawing on games like "Name That Tune", wanted to find out how quickly our brains can respond to familiar music. Is very fast.
As fast as the sound
The team worked with an experimental group of five men and five women. Each had provided the team with a list of five familiar songs. The team then chose one of these songs, combining it with a similar melody in terms of rhythm, melody, harmony, vocals and instrumentation (but not familiar to the participant).
Each participant was asked to listen to 100 excerpts, each lasting less than one second, from family and unfamiliar music in random order. The researchers monitored each participant using electroencephalography (EEG) imaging, which records electrical activity in the brain, and pupillometry, a technique that measures pupil diameter as a measure of excitation.
The team explains that familiarity is a multifaceted concept and that, for the study, instructed participants to explicitly select songs that evoke positive feelings and memories. This means that part of what the team studied here is recognizability and partially emotional involvement and affectation.
The brains of the participants took about 100 milliseconds (0.1 seconds) to recognize a familiar song after listening to it; the average recognition time was between 100 and 300 ms, explains the team. Recognition of a song was judged on the basis of rapid pupil dilation (probably caused by increased excitement associated with familiar sound) and cortical activation related to memory recall.
A control group of international students – unfamiliar with all the songs – used at the trial showed none of these signs of recognition.
"Our results show that recognition of family music happens remarkably quickly," says Professor Maria Chait, senior author of the study.
"These findings point to very fast time circuits and are consistent with the profound mastery that highly familiar pieces of music have in our memory."
Most of us see music as art, entertainment, a hobby and not much beyond that. However, the team says understanding how our brains recognize family music can help us plan therapeutic interventions for patients who might otherwise be beyond our help. For example, Dementia patients seem to have well-preserved musical memories, even if their memory is defective – understanding what makes music different in this case can help us identify the causes of dementia.
Some limitations of the study include this bleeding between recognizability and emotional involvement, manual selection of songs due to technological limitations, and the use of a single "familiar" song per subject; The latter probably limited the demands of the memory processes studied, they explain.
The article "Rapid Brain Responses to Family versus Unfamiliar Music – A Study of EEG and Pupillometry" was published in the journal Scientific reports.