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Front. Neurosci. | doi: 10.3389/fnins.2018.00686

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

  • 1Bloorview Research Institute, Holland Bloorview Kids Rehabilitation Hospital, Canada
  • 2Institute of Medical Science, University of Toronto, Canada
  • 3Department of Medical Biophysics, University of Toronto, Canada
  • 4Scuola Sant'Anna di Studi Avanzati, Italy
  • 5Mouse Imaging Centre, Hospital for Sick Children, Canada
  • 6Department of Diagnostic Imaging, Hospital for Sick Children, Canada
  • 7Department of Psychology, University of Toronto, Canada
  • 8Neuroscience & Mental Health Program, Hospital for Sick Children, Canada
  • 9Department of Paediatrics, University of Toronto, Canada

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, eleven 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 < .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: Music, Familiarity, fMRI, Meta-analysis, activation likelihood estimation

Received: 21 Mar 2018; Accepted: 13 Sep 2018.

Edited by:

Bruno L. Giordano, University of Glasgow, United Kingdom

Reviewed by:

Elizabeth Hellmuth Margulis, University of Arkansas, United States
David R. Sears, Texas Tech University, United States
Mattson Ogg, University of Maryland, College Park, United States  

Copyright: © 2018 Freitas, Manzato, Burini, Taylor, Lerch and Anagnostou. This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License (CC BY). The use, distribution or reproduction in other forums is permitted, provided the original author(s) and the copyright owner(s) are credited and that the original publication in this journal is cited, in accordance with accepted academic practice. No use, distribution or reproduction is permitted which does not comply with these terms.

* Correspondence: Dr. Carina Freitas, Holland Bloorview Kids Rehabilitation Hospital, Bloorview Research Institute, Toronto, Ontario, Canada,