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George Craig, lived behind the present Farmer's Exchange. A great grand-mother was the cook for Robert E. Billy, however, was born in Dayton. Ohio in His mother, Lillian Young Strayhorn, brought her children to Hillsborough often. Billy was attracted to the piano that his grandmother, Elizabeth Craig Strayhorn owned. He played it from the moment he was tall enough to reach the keys.

Even in those early years, when he played, his family would gather to listen and sing. In Billy entered the first grade in a little wooden school house, since destroyed. Soon after that, however, his mother moved her family to Pittsburgh to join Billy's father, James Nathaniel Strayhorn. Strayhorn had gotten a job there as a gas-maker and wire-puller. Charlotte Catlin began to give Billy private piano lessons. He played the piano everyday, sometimes becoming so engrossed that he would be late for his job. He also played in the high school band.

His father enrolled him in the Pittsburgh Musical institution where he studied classical music. We were interested to see how fast their brain would differentiate between their favourite song which they know very well, and an unknown song which still sounded very similar. This may be akin to zapping through radio or TV programmes, immediately deciding on whether you want to stay and listen or move on.

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The figures and results presented below are based on relatively little data, as well as representing single subjects rather that group averages over many subjects. While they are interesting and well in line with many previous studies, it is important to stress that the analyses are exploratory in nature.

We are excited to investigate this systematically on a larger group of participants and will continue updating this page with data as it becomes available. Brain activity measured from Laura and Billy showed the characterisitc pattern we normally observe in response to short sound snippets. What was striking is how fast the brain responses differed between the two songs.


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The first peak showing a difference appears already a tenth of a second milliseconds after the snipped started, which is remarkable. Blue traces pertain to the familiar song; Yellow traces show responses to the unfamiliar song.

Our findings:

Put differently, their brains recognized and differentiated the snippets from the familiar and unfamiliar song within a fraction of a second. Likewise we see a much stronger change in the pupil size following the unfamiliar compared to the familiar song.

This stronger response can be interpreted similarly to the EEG effects above: Surprise, novelty, and a violation of expectations. It might be that processing the new sounds in the unfamiliar song is more difficult and uses up resources in the brain, leading to a stronger pupil response. The familiar song on the other hand is very easy and straightforward to process, because it has been heard hundreds of times before. Blue traces pertain to the familiar song; Yellow traces show responses to the unfamiliar song.

Put differently, their brains recognized and differentiated the snippets from the familiar and unfamiliar song within a fraction of a second. Likewise we see a much stronger change in the pupil size following the unfamiliar compared to the familiar song. This stronger response can be interpreted similarly to the EEG effects above: Surprise, novelty, and a violation of expectations. It might be that processing the new sounds in the unfamiliar song is more difficult and uses up resources in the brain, leading to a stronger pupil response.

The familiar song on the other hand is very easy and straightforward to process, because it has been heard hundreds of times before.

The pupil dilation data reveal substantially larger responses to the unfamiliar song. These results mirror the pattern seen for EEG, above.

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We also examined a second aspect of the EEG data: ongoing rhythmic activity. For example they differ strongly between being awake and fresh, being very tired, being asleep, or performing meditation.

If a part of the brain exhibits a strong alpha rhythm, this is generally interpreted as a sign that this part of the brain is disengaged and less active, compared to when it shows less alpha rhythm. Another potential interpretation is that listening to their preferred and highly familiar songs has a relaxing and partly disengaging effect on their brains. As a control we presented the stimuli used in Billy's experiment to 3 naive participants who were unfamiliar with both songs. Their brain responses did not differ between the two songs suggesting that the effects observed above are indeed linked to familiarity and not due to other acoustic differences between the signals.