Neuroscience study shows different brain reactions to music based on song familiarity

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Music is a fundamental part of human culture, experienced daily by people across the globe to evoke emotions and memories. A recent study published in Cerebral Cortex has now provided new insights into how our brains process music we know well compared to tunes that are new to us. Using advanced brain imaging techniques, researchers have found that familiar and unfamiliar music engage different memory systems in our brains, shedding light on the neurobiological processes underlying our musical experiences.

“Music is a cross-cultural and cross-racial medium for emotional expression and transmission, and it is an indispensable part of human life. However, what exactly happens in the brain when listening to music is not well understood. Therefore, we initiated this research to explore the differences in brain neural activity when listening to familiar versus unfamiliar music,” explained study author Li Qiang, an associate professor at Guizhou Education University.

To explore these questions, the researchers designed an experiment utilizing functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), a technique that enables the visualization of active brain regions by detecting changes associated with blood flow. This method is particularly suited for studies like this as it allows for precise anatomical mapping of brain activity in response to specific stimuli—in this case, music.

The study involved 21 young adult participants, all of whom were non-musicians to avoid the confounding effects of musical training on brain activity patterns. These participants were exposed to 130 song excerpts while undergoing fMRI scans. The songs were carefully selected to cover a range of familiarity — from well-known pop hits to obscure tracks — ensuring a robust test of the brain’s response to familiar and unfamiliar music. Each participant rated the familiarity of each song using a five-point scale immediately after listening, providing data that correlated subjective experiences of familiarity with objective measurements of brain activity.

For familiar music, the researchers found pronounced activation in regions of the brain typically associated with explicit memory systems, including the hippocampus and frontal areas. These areas are crucial for recalling facts and personal experiences, suggesting that familiar songs trigger a recall of specific memories or associated emotions.

This result aligns with the theory that familiar melodies may help retrieve stored information about the context in which the music was heard, such as remembering the moment one first heard a favorite song or significant events tied to certain tunes.

In contrast, unfamiliar music was shown to activate regions associated with implicit memory, such as the basal ganglia. Implicit memory operates without conscious awareness and supports our ability to develop skills and habits. The activation of these areas suggests that hearing unfamiliar music engages the brain’s learning mechanisms, which may facilitate the subconscious integration of new auditory patterns and structures without immediate conscious recognition or recall.

Interestingly, the study highlighted that not only are different memory systems activated by familiar versus unfamiliar music, but these systems also interact differently with other neural networks across the brain. For instance, familiar music led to increased connectivity between memory-related regions and the auditory cortex, which processes sound. This suggests a more integrated and perhaps intensive processing network that links directly to stored memories and emotions, enhancing the emotional and mnemonic quality of the music listening experience.

On the other hand, unfamiliar music elicited less connectivity between these memory regions and the auditory cortex but involved more widespread activation across the brain. This pattern may reflect the brain’s attempt to understand and categorize new auditory information, engaging a broader network of regions to process and perhaps store new musical information for future reference.

“Listening to music is both simple and not simple,” Qiang told PsyPost. “It is simple because humans have the ability to appreciate music without any musical training. It is not simple because the process behind listening to music involves complex neural mechanisms. Listening to music of different familiarity activates two completely different memory systems; familiar music triggers the explicit music memory system, while unfamiliar music activates the implicit music memory system.”

One key limitation is the use of a homogenous participant group — primarily young adults — which might not represent the full variability of the general population. Additionally, the focus on pop music may not capture the neural responses to other music genres that could engage the brain differently.

Future research could expand by including diverse age groups, various musical training backgrounds, and different types of music to see if these findings hold universally. Moreover, researchers are interested in exploring the broader question of why humans are uniquely attuned to music and how this “regulated sound” becomes so deeply embedded in our culture and emotional experiences.

“Listening to and appreciating music is a very important capability, crucial for human empathy and the experience and expression of emotions,” Qiang noted. “We understand that in some countries and regions, parents believe that listening to music can affect their children’s studies and thus limit their exposure to music. However, we believe this might affect the development of the children’s music memory networks.”

“The long-term goal of this research is to solve a very fascinating question: how does music become music?” the researcher added. “We hear many sounds in our lives, but why is it that only music becomes ‘music’? What information is encoded in our genes that makes us particularly fascinated by this regulated sound, and what is this regulation? These are questions we want to answer throughout our lifetime.”

The study, “Neural correlates of musical familiarity: a functional magnetic resonance study,” was authored by Qiang Li, Guangyuan Liu, Yuan Zhang, Junhua Wu, and Rong Huang.

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