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Sunday, 3 November 2019

Brain recognizes familiar music at lightning speed


One snippet of music suffices: our brain recognizes familiar songs with surprising speed. It takes only 100 to 300 milliseconds to classify a piece of music as known, as experiments reveal. But the recognition does not only show in the brain: Our pupils react too. They widen with excitement when we hear a familiar and popular song.

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Music is deeply rooted in our human nature: There is hardly a culture worldwide that knows no music, and unborn children in the womb react to melodious sounds. Above all, the sound of music develops a strong emotional effect . It can make us cry, awaken memories - or cause uproar.

How certain music affects a person, however, is completely different. This is evidenced, for example, by the fact that everyone has a different favorite song. Where one of them turns off the radio annoyed, the other one turns up loud and sings along at the top of his voice.

Song recognized?

Interestingly enough, our most popular pieces of music seem to be anchored in the brain in a special way: often just a few notes are enough to recognize the song. But how fast can the thinking organ identify familiar melodies? Robert Jagiello from University College London and his colleagues have now taken the test.

For their study, the researchers recruited five men and five women, each of whom named five pop songs known to them, connecting them with positive feelings and memories. For each of these songs, Jagiello's team chose a counterpart - a song that sounded similar in tempo, melody, harmony, and song, but was unknown to the participants.

A matter of milliseconds

In the crucial experiment, the scientists then alternately played less than a second of the known and unknown songs to the study participants. They used electroencephalography (EEG) to observe how the brain responded to these musical snippets. They also measured the dilation of the pupils, which is considered a sign of excitement.

The results revealed that the mind recognized familiar songs surprisingly quickly. It took only 100 to 300 milliseconds to classify a music excerpt as known. This was shown on the one hand by a clear pupil reaction. On the other hand, Jagiello and his colleagues found an activation of cortical brain regions involved in recalling memories.

Benefit for the therapy

"Our results show that familiar music is recognized remarkably quickly. This points to a fast temporal circuit and underlines how deeply such pieces of music are anchored in our memory, "says Jagiello's colleague Maria Chait. The scientists suspect that this particular reaction to the music has to do with the positive emotions associated with it.

According to the team, the results may also be relevant to therapeutic approaches: "Understanding how the brain recognizes familiar melodies can be very useful for music therapy. For example, there is a growing interest in learning about people with dementia through music. Because the memory of music is often kept for a surprisingly long time, "explains Chait.

Identifying the neural processes that enable the recognition of music could thus help to better understand this and other phenomena.

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