Let’s say that Key to the Highway by Derek and the Dominos is one of your favorite songs, as it is one of mine. How long would it take you to hear the first few notes and recognize that it’s being played on the radio?
According to some recent research, the answer is exactly 0.1 to 0.3 seconds. That’s virtually instantaneous.
The research focused on pupil dilation and certain brain activity that was triggered by hearing a favorite, familiar song and compared it to the reaction to listening to unfamiliar tunes. The study determined that hearing even a fraction of a second of a favorite song caused pupil dilation and brain activity related to memory retrieval — which would then cause you to immediately remember every note and every lyric. One of the researchers noted that “[t]hese findings point to very fast temporal circuitry and are consistent with the deep hold that highly familiar pieces of music have on our memory.”
Why do researchers care about the brain’s reaction to familiar music? Because the deeply engrained neural pathways that are associated with music might be a way to reach, and ultimately treat, dementia patients who are losing other forms of brain function.
The human brain is a pretty amazing thing, and its immediate recall of music is one compelling aspect of its functioning. But here’s the thing the researchers didn’t consider: immediate recall isn’t limited to favorite music. In fact, it’s provoked by familiar music, whether it’s a tune you’d happily binge listen to or whether its a piece of music that you wish you could carve out of your synapses. If I mention the Green Acres theme song, and you then think of the first few guitar notes for that song, I guarantee that every bit of the song will promptly come to mind, whether you want it to or not. (Sorry about that!) And isn’t it a bit disturbing to think that, if you eventually lose your marbles some day far in the future, one of the last things to go will be the tale of the Douglases and their “land, spreading out so far and wide”?