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Why Does Music Evoke Memories?

Songs from the past can trigger powerful emotions and transport us back in time.

Key points

  • Listening to certain songs can elicit specific memories.
  • Music helps to write autobiographical memory.
  • People who suffer from memory loss still demonstrate lasting memories of music.

The relationship between music and memory is powerful. Music evokes powerful emotions that then bring back memories. When we listen to a piece of music from years ago, we seem to travel back to that moment. We can feel everything as if we were there.

Our long-term memory can be divided into two distinct types, namely implicit memory and explicit memory. Explicit memory is a deliberate, conscious remembering of the past. Explicit memory involves things like textbook learning or experiential memories, things that must be consciously brought into awareness.

Implicit memories are our unconscious and automatic memories. For example, playing a musical instrument, or recalling the words to a song when someone sings the first few words. A large part of memory takes place in the unconscious mind.

Explicit memory fades in the absence of recall, while implicit memory is more enduring and may last a lifetime even in the absence of further practice. The explicit memory systems become damaged by conditions such as Alzheimer’s disease.

Implicit memory can be formed by passively listening to background music. We may even develop a preference for certain music pieces simply because they have been repeatedly played in the background. This psychological phenomenon is known as the mere exposure effect. People tend to like best what is most familiar. Major labels know that frequent airplay is the key to successful record sales.

Implicit memory is a form of classical conditioning. An event, an emotion, and a song get connected through implicit memory. When a piece of music is paired with a very emotional event, it can be an effective cue to bring back the strong emotion that was felt at that moment. For example, the song “Candle in the Wind” is often associated with Princess Diana because Elton John performed it at her funeral.

Memories stimulated by music often come from certain times in our lives. Most people tend to overly report memories from when they were around 10 to 30 years old (Jakubowski et al, 2021). Psychologists have called it the "reminiscence bump." Music from the reminiscence bump period can be associated with more memories than music from other periods in your life. Our teenage years and twenties are especially important and exciting times in our lives, as we experience things for the first time. Music preference is also formed around the middle teenage years.

Music is one of the few ways to penetrate Alzheimer’s brain. Those suffering from dementia can retrieve vivid memories by listening to music they heard when they were young. Despite profound memory loss and even a loss of knowledge about who they are, individuals with dementia often show a remarkable memory for music. Research shows that self-selected music can trigger positive memories they might otherwise struggle to recall (Leggieri, 2019).

In sum, music can help to unlock non-musical memories and promote communication in older adults with Alzheimer's disease. Recalling a memory is not always easy. It doesn’t simply come when you want to retrieve it. However, music helps to recall all the memories that you’ve connected with a song. Listening to a piece of music that was played a lot during a significant life event, such as a wedding or funeral, can trigger a deeply nostalgic emotional experience.

References

Jakubowski, Kelly and Ghosh, Anita (2021). Music-evoked autobiographical memories in everyday life. Psychology of music., 49 (3). pp. 649-666.

Leggieri M, Thaut MH, Fornazzari L, Schweizer TA, Barfett J, Munoz DG, Fischer CE. (2019) Music Intervention Approaches for Alzheimer’s Disease: A Review of the Literature Front. Neurosci.;13:132.

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