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Music and Memory: Get Back to Where You Once Belonged

Music shapes the stories of our lives.

To what extent does music shape autobiographical memory? And how does it help increase understanding of human memory? The Magical Memory Tour is creating the largest database on music, memory, and personal history ever attempted.

Researchers Martin Conway and Catriona Morrison at the University of Leeds have developed a survey on autobiographical memory and the impact of The Beatles and their music on our lives. It's based on the premise that John, Paul, George, and Ringo have had a powerful effect on millions of people over the last four decades. In brief, the collective work of the Fab Four spans cultures and generations far more than any musicians' in recent history. The researchers believe that outcomes from their study will enhance understanding of how we develop memory as children, how adults form memories, and if and how memories change over the lifespan, into older adulthood. So before you keep reading, take a few minutes and go to the Magical Memory Tour site to add your data (you don’t have to be a Beatles fan to participate).

Autobiographical memory is a form of long-term memory and consists of the events and experiences we have had during our lives. It’s about who we are, where we have been, and how our sense of self is shaped. Within families, groups, communities, and cultures, shared autobiographical memories create commonly held beliefs, values, and collective histories. While all the expressive therapies capitalize on autobiography in one way or another, the sensory power music in particular quickly stimulates both long-term personal memory and emotion in ways no other art forms do. Music therapists know that by recalling music memories and associating these memories with significant events, our musical memories provide a veritable life review. In turn, these remembrances provide an internal sense of social support and connect us to others, whether through peer groups, classmates, friends, families, or communities. And triggering recollection of our musical histories reinforces identity, strengthening a sense of self, meaning, and purpose throughout the lifespan.

So how did the Fab Four affect my life? When asked to identify a powerful memory of The Beatles, the famous 1969 “Roof Top Concert” atop the Apple corporate headquarters in London immediately came to my mind, as well as the songs “Get Back” and “Don’t Let Me Down.” The event turned out to be the last public concert by The Beatles, essentially ending a musical era. Why did I recall this memory? I am not completely sure, but I can say that 1969 was milestone year in my life. And, well, when you watch the film (check it out via a Google search) how can you argue with all that incredible hair?

© 2008 Cathy Malchiodi, PhD

Also see Jefferson Singer’s PT post, Meet The Beatles of Your Memory.