The Human Brain Can Recognize Familiar Music in Milliseconds

Did you know that your brain can recognize a familiar song within 100 to 300 milliseconds? A new study from University College London reports that our favorite tunes are deeply held in our minds.

For this study, researchers at the UCL Ear Institute wanted to find out exactly how fast the brain responded to familiar music, as well as the temporal profile of processes in the brain which allow for this.

“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,” said senior author Professor Maria Chait.

Scott Houston adds, “I’ve always been greatly intrigued with that incredible feeling you get when you are listening to a radio, scanning from station to station, and you can stop almost immediately when you sense some tune you recognize, yet you’ve possibly not heard it in years. (fast as in 100 milliseconds! see below…) Similarly amazing to me is the way that you can remember verse after verse of lyrics in tunes that you haven’t heard, again, in YEARS once you start to sing along with it. I’m just fascinated by the depth (or maybe “stickiness” or robustness are more descriptive words to use) of memories when they are attached to music. There is clearly something profound and unique about music as it affects our brain when it comes to the way it affects us, makes us feel emotionally, and locks in memories like nothing else. It’s almost overwhelming to me when I think about it all, and makes me so incredibly proud to be able to bring making music into a lot of people’s lives for the first time.”

Participants in the UK study passively listened to 100 snippets (each less than a second) of both the familiar and unfamiliar song, presented in random order. Around 400 seconds was listened to in total. Researchers used electroencephalography (EEG) imaging, which records electrical activity in the brain, and pupillometry (a technique that measures pupil diameter—considered a measure of arousal).

The study found the human brain recognized ‘familiar’ tunes from 100 milliseconds (0.1 of a second) of sound onset, with the average recognition time between 100ms and 300ms. This was first revealed by rapid pupil dilation, likely linked to increased arousal associated with the familiar sound, followed by cortical activation related to memory retrieval.

Houston adds, “This issue of learning to play piano using well-known tunes versus some dumb original tunes I could have written is a basic tenet of my online method and I firmly believe it is one of the keys to the incredible success we see with our adult students. If you are going to have to spend some effort learning to play, why not spend that time and effort learning tunes YOU want to play as opposed to tunes you’ve never heard of and would never get caught dead playing in front of friends and family, right? It seems so logical …”

Well, we all LOVE our favorite songs and that’s why Scott “The Piano Guy” Houston’s Piano in a Flash Online Method uses those songs to teach anyone to play the piano! It’s fun and easier than you might think. Hey, the kids are grown, career’s all wrapped up and it’s YOUR time now! It’s YOUR turn to play!

Give me your email and I'll send new posts straight to your inbox

© 2024 Piano in a Flash. All rights reserved.