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The Impact of Familiar and Unfamiliar Music on Brain Stimulation and Patient Reactivity


Music has been an integral part of human culture and emotional expression for centuries. It can evoke strong emotions, trigger memories, and influence cognitive processes. The role of music in various therapeutic contexts has been a subject of research and debate. In particular, the effects of familiar and unfamiliar music on individuals, especially those facing conditions like dementia, have been studied. This article delves into the complex relationship between familiar and unfamiliar music, shedding light on their impacts on brain stimulation, emotional reactivity, and overall patient well-being.

The Battle of Familiarity:

Sloboda's (2005) assertion that unfamiliar music can lead to decreased attention raises an intriguing question about the role of familiarity in musical experiences. Johnson and Taylor (2011) advocate for using unfamiliar music, suggesting that it can avoid triggering negative memories tied to specific songs. However, their critique of previous studies, which focused on patient groups rather than individuals, underscores the need for a more nuanced approach.

On the other side of the debate, Pereira et al. (2011) and King et al. (2019) champion the merits of familiar music, particularly in the context of dementia patients. These studies highlight the brain-stimulating properties of familiar melodies, showcasing their potential to spark engagement and cognitive activity. But Elliot et al. (2011) introduce an intriguing counterpoint by suggesting that factors like tempo might overshadow familiarity in terms of importance.

Decoding How Music Affects the Brain:

Functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) has offered unprecedented insights into the brain's response to music. Shahinfard et al. (2016) revealed that listening to familiar music triggers activity in the frontal lobe, a region associated with higher-order cognitive functions. In contrast, the diminished activation of the frontal cortex during exposure to unfamiliar music, as observed by Slattery et al. (2019), underscores the intricate relationship between music and neural processing.

Unlocking Memories Through Music:

Baird et al. (2019) and Cuddy (2020) contribute to the discussion by highlighting music's role in memory recall. Familiar music has the remarkable ability to unlock both positive and negative memories, creating an auditory time capsule that can transport individuals to different moments in their lives. This aspect adds another layer of complexity to the familiar versus unfamiliar music debate.


The dichotomy between familiar and unfamiliar music continues to be a captivating research subject, yielding insights into the intricacies of human cognition, emotion, and well-being. As researchers explore this multifaceted relationship, it becomes increasingly evident that both types of music have unique roles to play in therapeutic contexts. Whether it's the soothing embrace of a beloved melody or the adventurous exploration of uncharted musical landscapes, the symphony of familiar and unfamiliar music can orchestrate profound effects on the human mind and spirit.


BAIRD, A., GARRIDO, S. & TAMPLIN, J. 2019. Music and dementia: From cognition to therapy, Oxford University Press.

CUDDY, L., BELLEVILLE, S. & MOUSSARD, A. 2020. Music and the Aging Brain, Academic Press.

ELLIOT, D., POLMAN, R. AND MCGREGOR, R. (2011). Relaxing music for anxiety control. Journal of Music Therapy, 48: 264288.

JOHNSON, R. & TAYLOR, C. 2011. Can playing pre-recorded music at mealtimes reduce the symptoms of agitation for people with dementia? International journal of therapy and rehabilitation, 18, 700-708.


PEREIRA, C. S., TEIXEIRA, J., FIGUEIREDO, P., XAVIER, J., CASTRO, S. L. & BRATTICO, E. 2011. Music and emotions in the brain: familiarity matters. PloS one, 6, e27241.

SHAHINFARD, E. et al. (2016) ‘P4‐042: An FMRI study to investigate the benefits of music therapy in patients with alzheimer’s disease’, Alzheimer’s & Dementia, 12(7S_Part_21). doi:10.1016/j.jalz.2016.06.2131.

SLOBODA, J. 2005. Exploring the musical mind: Cognition, emotion, ability, function, Oxford University Press.

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