Your Brain Can Recognize a Song in Just 100 Milliseconds

Our brains can recognize familiar songs in as little as 100 milliseconds, a study suggests.

The research involved 22 people who listened to song snippets less than a second long. Scientists at University College London played segments from songs to 10 participants that were either familiar, sounded similar to their chosen tracks, or they had never heard before. The remaining 12 volunteers didn't know any of the songs, and acted as the control group.

The researchers tracked how the volunteers' pupils responded while listening to the tracks, as this is suggestive of brain processes, as well as their brain activity.

Between 100 to 300 milliseconds after hearing the short clip of the familiar song, the participants' pupils dilated. The part of their brains linked to memory also lit up.

By learning about how the brain processes familiar stimuli, researchers hope to in turn shed light on brain and memory-related conditions like dementia, of which Alzheimer's is the most common. People with this neurodegenerative condition seem to remember music despite other parts of their memory failing, the authors explained in their paper published in the journal Scientific Reports.

Senior author Professor Maria Chait, of the UCL Ear Institute, told Newsweek: "The study demonstrates that the brain is able to recognize snippets from a familiar song, intermixed with matched snippets from an unfamiliar song, very quickly—within a quarter of a second. This demonstrates super rapid recognition circuits."

She said the team was surprised the pupils dilated before activity was detected in the brain.

"This may have happened because the initial recognition mostly involves rapid sub-cortical (i.e brain stem circuits)," she said.

"We demonstrated very robust clear signatures of recognition," she continued. "The same paradigm can be used as an 'objective' measure of recognition in, for example, patients who are otherwise unable to indicate whether a song is familiar. There is a growing interest in using music therapy with dementia patients. The approach we introduced might be helpful in selecting songs to use with these patients."

The study is the latest to look at how the brain processes music. Earlier this year, a team of scientists investigated the absolute pitch phenomenon, where individuals can identity a musical note as easily as most of us can see color.

They concluded these people had more of a certain type of gray matter in their brains.

Associate Professor Keith Schneider, co-author of the study and director of the Center for Biomedical and Brain Imaging at the University of Delaware, told Newsweek at the time: "We found that people with absolute pitch have a larger primary auditory cortex and also have broader frequency tuning, so each part of the cortex responds to a wider range of frequencies.

"So when they hear a musical tone, a larger part of their auditory cortex is activated," said Schneider.

This article has been updated with comment from Maria Chait.

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Scientists have studied how long it takes people to recognize familiar music. A stock image shows a man listening to music through headphones. Getty