Greg Diamond – ByrnesMedia

“Well, it’s been proven over time.”
“Says who?”
“Pretty much everyone. Like I said, this is something that we learned over the years.”
“Yeah, but why?”
“It’s human nature.”
“I still don’t get why, though.” 

That was the tail end of a conversation I had just prior to Christmas with a friend’s 10-going-on-30 year old son. We were discussing the importance of familiarity in music programming. Just how we got on the topic is a long story in itself and I won’t bore you with the details, but suffice to say, he got me thinking about a few things like: “Oh yeah, this is why I never had kids.”; “I’m getting a headache.”; and finally, “He’s right. I really don’t have a good enough answer for him.”

While we all understand the importance that familiarity plays in our business – from music to jocks to spots. I’ve always wondered why, though. I came across a few recent studies that help shed some light on the matter.

What is it exactly that makes us desire familiarity is a question I tried exploring a couple years ago, but was unable to find research that dealt directly with the topic. I figured I would give it another go and this time did come across a study that went straight to the heart of the issue.

An article published in November, 2011 on the Public Library of Science website, PLoS ONE, gives hard evidence of the importance of familiarity in music. The paper, entitled “Music and Emotions in the Brain: Familiarity Matters” was compiled by researchers in Portugal and Finland and I’d like to share excerpts with you to help answer something that I’ve been curious about and possibly you have been, too.

The researchers explain their study as follows:

Listening to music is one of the most pleasurable human experiences, and one in which we invest a considerable amount of time and money. In a survey study [1], most subjects stated that their investment in this activity derives from the ability of music to convey emotions. For this reason, a better knowledge of how and why emotions are generated when listening to music will contribute to our understanding of why music is so important to our species.

With the present study, we investigated whether familiarity and aesthetic preferences in music have a role in determining the emotional involvement of the listener, and which of the two factors contributes the most to the recruitment of the limbic and reward centres of the brain. We aimed to do this by separating and individually analysing the role of these two factors in the enjoyment of music, therefore clarifying some of the questions raised by previous studies, in which one or both of these factors were not satisfactorily controlled…

…An important individual factor determining the variation of musical enjoyment and liking, as well as the occurrence of frissons in response to music, is familiarity: becoming more familiar with a particular piece of music increases the subject’s liking ratings for it [5], [24], [25]. This phenomenon, known in the literature as the mere exposure effect, suggests that familiarity might play an important role in the emotional engagement of listeners with the music. The neural mechanisms governing this mere exposure effect are, however, still unrevealed…

…in order to mimic the naturalistic situation in which music appreciation occurs, we discarded the manipulation of a single music dimension, and rather used expressive music from the pop/rock music genre, as it is the most ubiquitous in Western world… In addition, appreciation of pop/rock music does not require formal musical training, and it is consequently the most available and important instance of aesthetic enjoyment of music.

In sum, with this study, we examined the role of familiarity and aesthetic preferences in music enjoyment and in the activation of limbic and reward centres in the brain, using commercially available pop/rock songs. In an initial phase, candidates participated in a listening test, in which they listened to 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 to be presented during an fMRI session was selected for each participant, containing music in four different conditions: familiar liked, familiar disliked, unfamiliar liked and unfamiliar disliked.

In discussing their findings the team states:

…We found that musical preferences had only a marginal effect on the activation of limbic, paralimbic and reward system areas. On the contrary, familiarity with the music was the key factor to trigger increased blood oxygen level dependence (BOLD) response in these emotion-related regions, namely in the putamen, amygdala, nucleus accumbens, anterior cingulate cortex and thalamus.

Emotional responses to music have previously been shown to recruit limbic, paralimbic and reward structures of the brain. However, it was not clear how factors such as familiarity and musical preferences interact in modulating activity in these brain regions. In our study, we found that most emotion-related brain activity was triggered by familiar (liked or disliked) music rather than liked (familiar or unfamiliar) music, thus supporting our hypothesis about the crucial role of the familiarity factor in music appreciation and induction of emotions in the brain…

…To our knowledge, we provide the first functional neuroanatomical evidence for a strong effect of familiarity in the way listeners’ get emotional engaged with the music, at least within an experimental setting. Our results not only strengthen the body of evidence showing that music is very efficient in recruiting emotional centres of the brain, but also clearly provide evidence that familiarity with a particular piece of music is an extremely important factor for emotional engagement, and thus furnishes “direct access” to these emotional centres of the brain.

Admittedly, some portions of the paper are beyond the layperson (i.e. the various areas of the brain), but it’s evident that that familiarity creates a physical response (in this case, increased blood flow) in the parts of the brain related to emotion. Certainly appeal is also a factor, but it’s secondary, regardless of whether the song was liked or disliked. The following graph illustrates the differences.


The research is summed up as follows:

The importance of music in our daily life has given rise to an increased number of studies addressing the brain regions involved in its appreciation. Some of these studies controlled only for the familiarity of the stimuli, while others relied on pleasantness ratings, and others still on musical preferences. With a listening test and a functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) experiment, we wished to clarify the role of familiarity in the brain correlates of music appreciation by controlling, in the same study, for both familiarity and musical preferences… Brain activation data revealed that broad emotion-related limbic and paralimbic regions as well as the reward circuitry were significantly more active for familiar relative 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. Hence, familiarity seems to be a crucial factor in making the listeners emotionally engaged with music, as revealed by fMRI data.

The study is indeed interesting, but like many other studies is not perfect and is open to criticism. The researchers themselves cite some areas where their findings may be questioned and sample size is something that personally gives me pause.

Just the same, though, it seems to be a safe bet that familiarity in music has been grounded in science, at least to an extent that allows us a greater degree of certainty in our music programming regimen (or when answering persistent 10 year olds).

I’ve said on countless occasions (and am now better-armed than before to press the issue), that playing new music is dangerous, regardless of format. For a large percentage of stations, it also happens to be a necessity. So, it’s always made sense that if you decide to add a new song, you shouldn’t do it in half measures. Either you commit to it and give it the exposure required to build familiarity with the listener, or don’t bother adding it all. You’re just wasting your time and hurting the station. Or, if you like… “Play the song more to increased blood oxygen level in the putamen, amygdala, nucleus accumbens, anterior cingulate cortex and thalamus.”

Take your pick.


Pereira CS, Teixeira J, Figueiredo P, Xavier J, Castro SL, et al. (2011) Music and Emotions in the Brain: Familiarity Matters. PLoS ONE 6(11): e27241. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0027241

1. Juslin PN, Sloboda JA (2001) Music and emotion: theory and research. New York: Oxford University Press. 504 p.

5. Peretz I, Gaudreau D, Bonnel AM (1998) Exposure effects on music preference and recognition. Memory and Cognition 26(5): 884–902.

24. Meyer M (1903) Experimental studies in the psychology of music. American Journal of Psychology 14: 456–478.

25. Schellemberg EG, Peretz I, Vieillard S (2008) Liking for happy- and sad-sounding music: effects of exposure. Cognition and emotion 22(2): 218–237.