Brain recognizes familiar music in less than 1 second, imaging shows

The human brain is remarkable; so much so that it can recognize a familiar song in under one second, according to a study out of the University College London.

Researchers from the university’s Ear Institute used electro-encephalography imaging—which measures the brain’s electrical activity—along with a method to measure the diameter of a pupil to arrive at their conclusions.

The findings, published in Scientific Reports, may be particularly helpful for dementia patients, who have been shown to preserve some form of musical memory while most others recollections fade.

“Our results demonstrate that recognition of familiar music happens remarkably quickly,” Maria Chait, professor at the Ear Institute, said in a statement.

"These findings point to very fast temporal circuitry and are consistent with the deep hold that highly familiar pieces of music have on our memory."

For the study, five men and five women each provided the researchers five songs that were familiar to them. Then, the authors chose one of those songs and matched it to a tune that was similar, but unknown to the participant. The cohort was played 100 half-second snippets of the familiar and unfamiliar song in a random order—about 400 seconds in total.

The group found that the brain recognized familiar tunes in 100 milliseconds, with the average ranging between 100 and 300 milliseconds.

Rapid pupil dilatation was measured and linked to increased arousal associated with familiar sound, while electro-encephalography imaging measured brain signals associated with memory retrieval.

Despite certain limitations, such as a link between familiar songs and positive feelings—an indicator that emotions could have influenced “recognizability”—the team said their results could advance research into the effects of music therapy, particularly in patients with memory problems.

"For instance, there is a growing interest in exploiting music to break through to dementia patients for whom memory of music appears well-preserved despite an otherwise systemic failure of memory systems,” Chait explained. “Pinpointing the neural pathway and processes which support music identification may provide a clue to understanding the basis of this phenomena."