- Music evokes vivid and emotional memories from our lives, but researchers are only beginning to explore why this is.
- In a recent study, we tested whether music was still a particularly good memory cue when compared to other highly emotional cues.
- Music consistently evoked more positive autobiographical memories than either emotional sounds and words could.
We’ve all heard anecdotes about the “power of music” to reconnect us with moments from our pasts. You may have seen one of several viral YouTube videos of a patient with dementia hearing a piece of music and suddenly being transported back to memories from their youth. If you’ve seen the Disney Pixar movie Coco, you’ll remember the tear-jerking turning scene when the main character, Miguel, plays a familiar song to his great-grandmother to reawaken near-forgotten family memories.
Psychological research has supported the idea that music can cue particularly vivid and emotional lifetime memories. For instance, one study has shown that popular music evokes more detailed and vivid memories than photographs of famous faces (Belfi et al., 2016). My research team has shown that listening to music elicits more positive and social memories than watching TV (Jakubowski et al., 2021).
But one big question remains: Why does music seem to be particularly good at bringing back key memories?
Research to date has not fully addressed this question, but we have a few possible answers. One could simply be that music is a stimulus present during many of our important life events. We play music during weddings, rites of passage, and funerals, and sometimes even during childbirth. The presence of music during such events means that music can be a good cue for memories of these events later on.
One study has shown that people reengage with favorite music more frequently than favorite books or movies over their lifetime. This reengagement with music appears to particularly strengthen memories for our teenage years (Janssen et al., 2007). Since the teenage years are a critical period for exploring and developing one’s personal identity, this may begin to explain the link between music and self-defining memories.
In a study I’ve published this week (Jakubowski & Eerola, 2021), we explored another potential explanation for the link between music and lifetime memories. One of the most important features of music is that it conveys emotions. Previous research has shown that emotional stimuli often cue similarly emotional autobiographical memories. Therefore, our aim was to test if music was still a particularly good memory cue compared to other highly emotional cues.
In initial stages of the research, we matched pieces of music to environmental sounds and single words that were rated as similarly emotional. For instance, some angry-sounding heavy metal music was matched to screeching factory sounds and the word "tornado." We then presented these music clips, sounds, and words to 350 participants as cues to help them think of memories of events from their lives.
Across four different experiments, we found that music evoked fewer memories than the sounds and words. This suggests that music is not simply a more effective cue than other, equivalently emotional memory cues. However, music brought back more uniformly positive memories compared to sounds and words. While more negative sounds and words evoked more negative memories, sad- and angry-sounding music brought back just as positive memories as joyful pieces of music.
This suggests that music may be somewhat unique in its association with positive life events. This could be because even negative-sounding music often puts us in a positive mood. Angry music can rev us up, and sad music is often perceived as beautiful and moving. This positive response to negative music could then sway us to recall similarly positive memories.
This research just scratches the surface in answering the question of why music seems to be “special” in its ability to bring back lifetime memories. In several ongoing studies we are looking at how other features of music influence memory content, and how music-evoked memories vary across individuals.
Belfi, A. M., Karlan, B., & Tranel, D. (2016). Music evokes vivid autobiographical memories. Memory, 24(7), 979–989. https://doi.org/10.1080/09658211.2015.1061012
Jakubowski, K., Belfi, A. M., & Eerola, T. (2021). Phenomenological differences in music- and television-evoked autobiographical memories. Music Perception: An Interdisciplinary Journal, 38(5), 435–455. https://doi.org/10.1525/mp.2021.38.5.435
Jakubowski, K., & Eerola, T. (2021). Music evokes fewer but more positive autobiographical memories than emotionally matched sound and word cues. Journal of Applied Research in Memory and Cognition. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jarmac.2021.09.002
Janssen, S. M. J., Chessa, A. G., & Murre, J. M. J. (2007). Temporal distribution of favourite books, movies, and records: Differential encoding and re-sampling. Memory, 15(7), 755–767. https://doi.org/10.1080/09658210701539646