Scientists at UCL Ear Institute tracked brain activity and pupil movement of ten participants while listening to 100 snippets of both unfamiliar and familiar songs.
Five men and five women chose a familiar song and were asked to match it to an unfamiliar track that was similar in tempo, melody, harmony, vocals and instrumentation.
They found that participants’ brains clocked the songs they recognised in between 100 milliseconds and 300 milliseconds – around the same time it takes a human to blink, the average duration of which is 100 to 15 milliseconds.
Researchers hope the findings will support the use of music-based therapy in caring for patients with conditions like dementia.
“Our results demonstrate that recognition of familiar music happens remarkably quickly,” said senior study author Professor Maria Chait, of the UCL Ear Institute, reports Independent.
“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.
“Beyond basic science, understanding how the brain recognises familiar tunes is useful for various music-based therapeutic interventions,” Chait added.
“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.”
Although there is no conclusive evidence that musical memory can actively improve recollection in people suffering from memory loss conditions like dementia, previous studies have demonstrated familiar songs can improve symptoms of depression and behavioural problems in patients.