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How Our Brains Instantly Recognize Music

The science behind why people love a music-based Wordle spinoff.

Key points

  • A recent Wordle spinoff called Heardle challenges players to identify popular songs from clips of music as short as 1 second.
  • Research in music psychology has shown how and why we are able to recognize music so instantaneously.
  • Song recognition is influenced by memory for specific musical features, as well as individuals' musical preferences and histories.
Source: Firmbee/Pixabay

The huge, international appeal of Wordle has inspired a range of similar online games. Heardle is one particularly successful spinoff, targeted at music lovers. The Heardle app selects one song per day from a large collection of popular music and the goal of the game is to guess the song title and artist after hearing short excerpts of the song. The first attempt is made after hearing only one second of the song, if unsuccessful the listener can try again with two seconds of music, and so on, with a maximum of six attempts (six seconds of music).

As a music psychologist, I can’t help but note how Heardle intuitively builds on ideas we’ve been exploring in research on long-term memory for music over the last couple decades. For instance, Carol Krumhansl ran a seminal study using 28 popular songs released between 1960 and 2010, such as "Baby One More Time" by Britney Spears and "Respect" by Aretha Franklin. When presented clips from these songs of only 0.4 seconds in duration, listeners in the study were able to correctly identify both the title and artist of the song 25 percent of the time (Krumhansl, 2010). This shows that many people can successfully identify songs from clips less than half the duration of the initial, one-second clip provided by Heardle!

In addition, in Krumhansl’s study, even when listeners could not identify the exact song title, they were very good at identifying the decade of release of the song and the emotional expression of the song from these very short clips. Another recent study on this phenomenon (Faubion-Trejo & Mantell, 2022) has demonstrated that, to identify songs from such short clips, listeners (even those with minimal musical training) rely on their memory for the specific pitch level and timbre (instrumentation) of the music. Thus, everyday music listeners have excellent long-term memory for familiar songs, even when presented song clips so short they barely provide any information about other key features of the song, such as its tempo, melody, or lyrics.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, musical taste also plays a significant role in whether people can identify songs from short clips of music. Indeed, several studies have found a substantial correlation between whether a participant recognizes a song and the degree to which they like it (e.g., Jakubowski et al., 2020). That is, fans of pop music would be expected to do much better at Heardle than jazz connoisseurs. Luckily for metalheads, a heavy metal version of Heardle launched this month. Perhaps other genre-specific spinoffs will follow, to cater more directly to users’ musical preferences.

In general, research shows that people more accurately recognize pop songs released during their adolescence than songs from earlier or later time periods. This phenomenon is known as the “reminiscence bump,” and it extends beyond music: overall, we are better at remembering events and cultural items from when we were 10 to 30 years old (Rubin et al., 1998). In my research group, we’ve found a peak for the music-related reminiscence bump at around 14 years of age (Jakubowski et al., 2020). That is, we’d expect Heardle users would be most effective at identifying songs released when they were around 14 years old.

So, why do so many people thoroughly enjoy identifying popular songs on Heardle? Recent neuroscience theories have proposed that a main function of the brain is to develop accurate predictions about upcoming events and information. In the case of music listening, it has been shown that the act of correctly anticipating what’s coming next in a piece of music can activate the brain’s reward system (Salimpoor et al., 2011). The reward system is a group of brain structures underlying the sensation of pleasure; this same brain system is activated across a range of pleasurable activities, from eating a delicious meal to having sex.

In addition, hearing even a short excerpt of music within Heardle may activate autobiographical memories associated with that music (Jakubowski & Ghosh, 2021). A snippet of a particular song might effortlessly transport the listener back to when they first heard it as a teenager in a friend’s car, or a school dance where they finally got up the courage to ask their long-time crush to join them on the dancefloor. Thus, the power of music often lies not only in the sound itself, but in the emotions and memories it can conjure up.

References

Faubion-Trejo, R. N., & Mantell, J. T. (2022). The roles of absolute pitch and timbre in plink perception. Music Perception, 39(3), 289-308. https://doi.org/10.1525/mp.2022.39.3.289

Jakubowski, K., & Ghosh, A. (2021). Music-evoked autobiographical memories in everyday life. Psychology of Music, 49(3), 649-666. https://doi.org/10.1177/0305735619888803

Jakubowski, K., Eerola, T., Tillmann, B., Perrin, F., & Heine, L. (2020). A cross-sectional study of reminiscence bumps for music-related memories in adulthood. Music & Science, 3, https://doi.org/10.1177/2059204320965058

Krumhansl, C. L. (2010). Plink: "Thin slices" of music. Music Perception, 27(5), 337–354. https://doi.org/10.1525/mp.2010.27.5.337

Rubin, D. C., Rahhal, T. A., & Poon, L. W. (1998). Things learned in early adulthood are remembered best. Memory & Cognition, 26(1), 3-19. https://doi.org/10.3758/BF03211366

Salimpoor, V. N., Benovoy, M., Larcher, K., Dagher, A., & Zatorre, R. J. (2011). Anatomically distinct dopamine release during anticipation and experience of peak emotion to music. Nature Neuroscience, 14(2), 257-262. https://doi.org/10.1038/nn.2726

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