Neural Correlates of Familiarity in Music Listening: A Systematic Review and a Neuroimaging Meta-Analysis

Front Neurosci. 2018 Oct 5;12:686. doi: 10.3389/fnins.2018.00686. eCollection 2018.


Familiarity in music has been reported as an important factor modulating emotional and hedonic responses in the brain. Familiarity and repetition may increase the liking of a piece of music, thus inducing positive emotions. Neuroimaging studies have focused on identifying the brain regions involved in the processing of familiar and unfamiliar musical stimuli. However, the use of different modalities and experimental designs has led to discrepant results and it is not clear which areas of the brain are most reliably engaged when listening to familiar and unfamiliar musical excerpts. In the present study, we conducted a systematic review from three databases (Medline, PsychoINFO, and Embase) using the keywords (recognition OR familiar OR familiarity OR exposure effect OR repetition) AND (music OR song) AND (brain OR brains OR neuroimaging OR functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging OR Position Emission Tomography OR Electroencephalography OR Event Related Potential OR Magnetoencephalography). Of the 704 titles identified, 23 neuroimaging studies met our inclusion criteria for the systematic review. After removing studies providing insufficient information or contrasts, 11 studies (involving 212 participants) qualified for the meta-analysis using the activation likelihood estimation (ALE) approach. Our results did not find significant peak activations consistently across included studies. Using a less conservative approach (p < 0.001, uncorrected for multiple comparisons) we found that the left superior frontal gyrus, the ventral lateral (VL) nucleus of the left thalamus, and the left medial surface of the superior frontal gyrus had the highest likelihood of being activated by familiar music. On the other hand, the left insula, and the right anterior cingulate cortex had the highest likelihood of being activated by unfamiliar music. We had expected limbic structures as top clusters when listening to familiar music. But, instead, music familiarity had a motor pattern of activation. This could reflect an audio-motor synchronization to the rhythm which is more engaging for familiar tunes, and/or a sing-along response in one's mind, anticipating melodic, harmonic progressions, rhythms, timbres, and lyric events in the familiar songs. These data provide evidence for the need for larger neuroimaging studies to understand the neural correlates of music familiarity.

Keywords: PET; activation likelihood estimation; fMRI; familiarity; meta-analysis; music.