Your brain recognizes familiar music in less than half a second, study finds

LONDON, England — How long does it take you to recognize your favorite song when it comes on the radio? A study out of University College London finds that the brain is capable of recognizing familiar music in an incredibly short amount of time — within one tenth of a second of being played.

The popular “Name That Tune” game show from the ‘50s where contestants are rewarded for identifying the name of songs as quickly as possible has been transformed into a science experiment. “Name That Tune” games only test for the moment a person recognizes a song that they know. Researchers wanted to know how long it takes for the brain to recognize the song, and which brain regions are involved.

For the study, 10 participants each provided a list of five songs that they were very familiar with. Researchers selected one of the five songs and found a similar song in terms of its musical aspects (like tempo, melody, harmony, vocals and instrumentation) that the participant did not know.

The authors then divided up the two songs into 750 millisecond snippets and selected 100 random snippets from each song. They randomly played the snippets for the participants while they measured the brain’s electrical activity (using electro-encephalography, or EEG) and pupil diameters of the participants. Researchers used pupil diameter measurements since people’s pupils dilate when they are excited or aroused.

The results of the pupil diameter analysis indicate that participants pupils dilated more quickly to familiar music than unfamiliar music at a time of about 100-300 milliseconds after the song started playing. At 100 milliseconds the brain already senses that it knows the song being played.

By 350 milliseconds the brain can already distinguish a familiar song from an unfamiliar one. The EEG recordings show differences in activity in response to the two songs from 350 milliseconds into the snippet.

Researchers ran the experiment on a control group that was unfamiliar to both songs. There was no change in pupil dilation rate or brain activity responses to the two songs, indicating that familiarity with the songs causes these changes.

Senior author, Professor Maria Chait of the University College London Ear Institute, comments in a release: “Our results demonstrate that recognition of familiar music happens remarkably quickly.”

The authors note some limitations of their study. The participants were instructed to choose songs that made them feel good and happy. It’s possible that the familiar songs were not only more recognizable than the unfamiliar songs, but also evoked an emotional response from participants.

Also, the researchers selected the unfamiliar songs themselves. It’s possible that a better song selection process will select unfamiliar songs that match the familiar songs more closely.

Despite these limitations, the study’s findings are very important for understanding the processes the brain uses to recognize music.

Chait highlights an important area of application for this study. “Understanding how the brain recognises familiar tunes is useful for various music-based therapeutic interventions,” she says. “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.”

“Pinpointing the neural pathway and processes which support music identification may provide a clue to understanding the basis of this phenomena,” Chait concludes.

The study is published in Nature: Scientific Reports.