Music’s Power to Trigger Your Memory (A Galaxy Classic)

Images Remember that great Stones' ballad you heard on your first date with your first love? Well, despite music's importance to our lives, very little is known about the memories and emotions that are often evoked when hearing a piece of music from our past. Does music have a more powerful effect on memory than other influences, like images, words, or smells?

A research team  led by Petr Janata of UC Davis took  an important first step in understanding how music can affect memory by examining the content of music-evoked autobiographical memories (MEAMs) using a novel approach for selecting stimuli from a large corpus of popular music, in both laboratory and online settings.

Janata specializes in the relationship between music, emotion, and memory by studying music-evoked autobiographical memories, using a variety of tools including electrophysiological recordings, functional brain imaging, behavioral measures, and computational modeling.

As Janata explained in an earlier studies while a researcher at Dartmouth's Center for Cognitive Neuroscience: "This region in the front of the brain where we mapped musical activity is important for a number of functions, like assimilating information that is important to one's self, or mediating interactions between emotional and non-emotional information. Our results provide a stronger foundation for explaining the link between music, emotion and the brain." The rostromedial prefrontal cortex, an area of the brain now believed to process and track music iis also active during reasoning and memory retrieval. Put the two functions together and it's no wonder "music" and "memory" harmonize so well.

The research team collected over 1,500 "preview" clips from the iTunes Music Store's listing of the top 100 pop and R&B songs from each year over the past couple decades. The key was to have a sampling of the songs college students were most likely to have heard while they were growing up. They recruited 329 students to listen to the clips. Each student heard 30 songs randomly selected from the most popular songs that came out when they were between the ages of 7 and 19.

Each song was rated for familiarity and like/dislike, and then the students were asked if the song evoked any memories for them. They indicated what emotions they associated with the song, whether the memories were about person, place, or event, and what words they associated with the memory. Finally, for each memory, they were allowed to type in a description of what they recalled.

On average, the students recognized about half of the songs. As the songs increased in familiarity, so did the strength of the autobiographical memories associated with the songs. Very familiar songs were more likely than not to be associated with a memory. Overall, about 30 percent of the songs elicited memories.

The proportion of songs presented to memories elicited was roughly constant throughout the study period — a song that came out when you were seven was just as likely to elicit a memory as a song that came out when you were seventeen.

While songs that were rated as "pleasing" were more likely to evoke memories than "not pleasing" songs, there was no consistent pattern as to which songs were pleasing — it seems to come down to personal preference: songs you like are more likely to be associated with memories. But do the preferred songs evoke the memories, or do we like the songs because we associate them with memories? Since this is only a correlation, this study can't tell us.

As Janata's point out, it would be very interesting to compare the types of memories evoked by music to memories from other sources, like pictures or words. A large number of the memories in this study were about dances or cars — places where people are likely to be listening to music. Maybe memories associated with pictures viewed in a museum on a first date would be different.

Casey Kazan.


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