by Julianna Facchinelli
Neurologist Oliver Sacks was onto something when he said “Music evokes emotion and emotion can bring it’s memory”. We all have those songs that make us respond with a groan and perhaps a few curse words every time we hear them on the radio, but it is equally true that there are songs that delightfully transport us to a vivid moment from our past. As humans, it is common, even expected, to remember the emotional aspects of a memory, and musical cues can aid in bringing those memories to mind.
Researchers Jaclyn Ford, David Rubin, and Kelly Giovanello were curious about these notions regarding the musical connection to positive memories; they figured that listening to familiar songs would allow people to recall specific personal memories of a positive nature associated with that song. Makes sense, right? I think we’d be hard-pressed to think of an emotional, personal moment in time that wasn’t accompanied by music (sobbing to breakup songs, anyone ?). In their study, fifteen young adults and sixteen older adults were presented with snippets of popular songs from either the 2000s or the 1950s, which tailored the songs to the ages of the participants. They were asked to retrieve personal memories that immediately came to mind when listening to the songs and rated song familiarity and memory pleasantness. The study found that songs rated as highly familiar were more likely to allow the individuals to remember memories that were specific and very positive . Therefore, familiar songs increased the chance of retrieving joyful emotional memories, and this effect was found in both the young adults and the older adults. Interestingly, brain imagery taken during memory recall revealed activity in areas of the brain responsible for emotional memory processing and retrieval for both age groups. These results support the idea that the emotional memories linked to familiar music can be longstanding and brought to mind just by hearing a familiar song.
However, since the study only used common songs from specific decades, it would not be generalizable to non-familiar songs or songs from outside those time frames. It would be interesting to see this study tested out with other age groups, such as children, or even individuals with memory impairments to explore the extent of positive memory retrieval using musical influences- would it work for people suffering from memory loss? Another consideration could be the nature of the songs played: music selections were generally very positive. Future research might include sad songs to potentially retrieve negative memories, an element which this current study is lacking. Still, the findings are promising, so pay attention the next time you’re listening to your tunes—you may just be making some new memories.
Ford, J.H., Rubin, D.C., & Giovanello, K. (2016). The effects of song familiarity and age on phenomenological characteristics and neural recruitment during autobiographical memory retrieval. Psychomusicology: Music, Mind, and Brain, 26(3), 199-210. doi:10.1037/pmu0000152