Anecdotally the ability to recall popular songs is exemplified in game shows such as ‘Name That Tune’, where contestants can often identify a piece of music in just a few seconds.
For this study, published in Scientific Reports, 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.
The main participant group consisted of five men and five women who had each provided five songs, which were very familiar to them. For each participant researchers then chose one of the familiar songs and matched this to a tune, which was similar (in tempo, melody, harmony, vocals and instrumentation) but which was known to be unfamiliar to the participant.
Participants then 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 electro-encephalography (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 recognised ‘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.[…]