Pereira, Carlos Silva, João Teixeira, Patrícia Figueiredo, João Xavier, São Luís Castro, and Elvira Brattico. "Music and Emotions in the Brain: Familiarity Matters." PLoS One 2011; 6(11): e27241.
The goal of this study was to understand which regions of the brain are involved in music appreciation. Using a listening test and a functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) experiment, the researchers wanted to know how familiarity in the brain correlates with music appreciation. The subjects that were chosen for this study had no formal musical education, but described themselves as ‘music lovers’, listening to music on a daily basis. First, the subjects participated in a listening test, in which they listened to pop/rock song extracts and decided if each song was familiar or unfamiliar and if they liked it or not. Based on this test, a unique set of stimuli was selected for each participant, containing music in four different conditions: familiar liked, familiar disliked, unfamiliar liked and unfamiliar disliked, and was presented during an fMRI session.
Brain activation data revealed that broad emotion-related limbic and paralimbic regions as well as the reward circuitry were significantly more active for familiar music compared to unfamiliar music. Smaller regions in the cingulate cortex and frontal lobe, including the motor cortex and Broca's area, were found to be more active in response to liked music when compared to disliked one. The study concluded that familiarity is a crucial factor in making the listeners emotionally engaged with music, as revealed by fMRI data.
Music is omnipresent in our society, and it represents a multi billion industry. One of the reasons behind this success is the ability of music to convey emotions. This study is very interesting because it proves how familiarity of a piece of music increases the emotional response in our brain. The more you hear a song, the more it increases the blood oxygen level in emotion related regions of the brain. This conclusion correlates the findings of a previous study by Blood and Zatorre that reported a correlation between increased intensity of felt chills when listening to favourite pieces of music.
In my personal experience, I have found that I have the deepest emotional response to songs that I know. One could think that by knowing a song very well, it becomes predictable, and consequently there is nothing new and exciting to hear anymore. On the contrary, I think that by knowing every part of a song, the brain does not have to focus on analysing new data, but it can focus on the enjoyment of the piece, which can sometimes lead to a more powerful emotional response that appears in the form of chills or goose bumps. Some studies have also shown that patients with severe brain conditions such as dementia or Alzheimer’s have strong brain activation responses when hearing familiar music.