New research has found that humans can recognize well-known tunes in the blink of an eye.

By Kelly Vaughan
October 31, 2019

If you're quick to sing along to a popular tune on the radio, it may indicate something more than your love of music. According to a new study from the University College London, the human brain can recognize a familiar song within 100-300 milliseconds. In the study, which was published in Scientific Reports and reported by ScienceDaily, researchers aimed to learn just how quickly the brain could respond to familiar music.

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Five men and five women served as the main group of participants; each participant listened to a tune that was similar to a popular song in its tempo, melody, harmony, vocals, and instrumentation. Approximately 400 seconds of music was played for each participant. They each listened to less than one second of 100 different sound snippets and were able to recognize the song within approximately 0.1 of a second.

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"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," senior author Professor Maria Chait of the UCL Ear Institute told ScienceDaily.

To conduct the study, researchers employed a technology known as electro-encephalography (EEG) imaging, which records electrical activity in the brain, and pupillometry (a technique that measures pupil diameter and indicates arousal).

The results of the study may also inform cognitive music-based therapy, particularly for the elderly. "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," explains Professor Chait.

Researchers acknowledge that the song-matching process was done by hand rather than an automated processing and only one song was played per subject, which could have limited the demands on the memory processes.

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