a record spinning on a turntableIt happens to everyone: you have part of a song stuck in your head, but you cannot remember what it is called. Research from the University of Iowa (UI) offers an explanation for why people can usually remember a song’s melody, but often fail to identify a song’s title. In a study that is the first of its kind, a UI research team found that people with damage to certain brain regions are less skilled at identifying familiar tunes. This study contributes to a growing body of research into how music interacts with the brain.

The researchers built their study on prior research that demonstrated the brain’s left temporal lobe is important in identifying the proper names of things like cities or people. They recruited 30 participants from the Iowa Neurological Patient Registry to participate in a “famous melodies naming task.” The researchers divided the participants into groups of 10 people: one group had left temporal lobe (LTP) damage, a second group had another form of brain damage, and a third group had no brain damage. The participants listened to 8 to 15 second segments of famous melodies like “Pop Goes the Weasel” and “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.” Then, they rated how familiar they were with the songs and attempted to identify the song by name.

Although all three groups recognized the songs—that is, they were familiar with the melody—in roughly equal proportions, there was a significant difference in their ability to identify the songs by name. Participants with left temporal lobe damage correctly identified approximately half of the songs, while the participants with another form of brain damage correctly identified around 80% of the songs.

Recognizing a melody is much easier than identifying a song by name, according to the researchers. There is only one correct answer when it comes to naming a song, which means there are limited ways for the brain to find an answer. However, recognizing a song’s melody is a more general task, which means the brain can use multiple pathways to find an answer.

Next, the researchers plan to investigate which brain regions are associated with isolated deficits in melody recognition.

“Music transcends what we know about the brain. People who stutter can often sing without a deficit,” commented Amy Belfi, first author on the paper and a graduate student in neuroscience at UI.

This research is published in the journal Neuropsychology.

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