Music and Memory: Why and How Music Creates Vivid Memories

Like many things in life, the science behind music and memory is both wonderful and mysterious. For many of us, the monotony…

· 6 min read
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Like many things in life, the science behind music and memory is both wonderful and mysterious. For many of us, the monotony of day-to-day life tends to blend together over time, blurred in our memories unless something truly stands out.

If we hear a song from the past, however, we’re instantly transported back in time to a period of our lives we would have otherwise forgotten. Why does this happen? Music and memory go hand-in-hand in a truly perplexing way.

Have you wondered why you can still remember all the lyrics from your favourite song in middle school, but you can’t remember what a family member said during an important speech?

Have you been curious why sometimes, when a certain song comes on, you can remember a past event tied to that song so vividly that you can even remember exactly what you were wearing, how you were feeling, and precisely where you were?

In this article, we’re going to decode why and how music creates such vivid memories. We’ll also discuss the unique healing power of music, as well as what we can expect from the future of music as we relate to it.

Music and Memory: How Does Music Create Memories?

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Pinpointing how music creates memories can be difficult to understand. This is simply due to the lack of in-depth research conducted on the subject. However, it’s undeniable that music helps us preserve memory more vividly, for humans experiences this phenomenon all the time.

To decode the science behind music and memory, we have to first understand where memories are formed in our brains: the hippocampus and the frontal cortex.

The frontal cortex of the brain is one of our distinguishing features as humans. This part of the brain is used in critical thinking, decision-making, and planning. It’s also activated while listening to music. On the other hand, the hippocampus is responsible for creating memories. Similar to the frontal cortex, it is also triggered by music, creating an association between the song and the memory itself.

Think of it this way: Your brain is constantly taking in an onslaught of information, so it can be easy to forget all of the nuances of your life. However, a song can serve to bring a past memory to the forefront of your brain in glorious detail, by acting as a cue card for your brain. A song can act as a powerful flashcard, to help you remember all of the emotional and physical information captured during a certain space in your lifetime.

The right song (the right cue) could transport you back in time so vividly that you feel as though you’re reliving a past experience. How does this happen?

Music is unique in that it activates both hemispheres of the brain, expanding its reach as a medium. It’s also addictive– Music can activate the nucleus accumbens which is a major component in the brain’s reward circuit. As strange as it sounds, you can feel similar pleasure while enjoying a song as you would with eating, having sex, or getting high.

Daniel Levitin, author of This Is Your Brain on Music: The Science of a Human Obsession explains: “A song playing comprises a very specific and vivid set of memory cues. Because the multiple-trace memory models assume that context is encoded along with memory traces, the music you have listened to at various times of your life is cross-coded with the events of those times. That is, the music is linked to events of the time, and those events are linked to the music.”

Music and Movement

In addition to our more emotional limbic systems, musical memories can be associated with physical sensibilities. This is because music can activate certain parts of the brain such as the cerebellum, which is responsible for some of our motor skills and coordination.

Detailed Memories Triggered by a Song

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Since you’re actively engaging both emotional and physical aspects of the brain, you have a strong chance of centering a core memory around a song or two. In the same way that you might write out flashcards to help recall facts for a test, music automatically embeds itself into multiple areas of the brain, increasing your likelihood of a future recall. In fact, listening to a song in the future may take you right back to whatever physical activity you were engaging in at the time– Whether it was lounging in your hotel on vacation, getting married, dancing at a party, or gazing out the window of a car at the scenery going by, music can cue feelings along with setting, time, and place of listening.

It’s very common for people to hear a song and remember a past event where that song was playing in such detail that they remember exactly what they were wearing, who they were with, what they were doing, and even what they could smell or taste at the time.

The Soundtrack of Our Lives

For many of us, music is incredibly meaningful. This isn’t by accident. Music essentially serves as the soundtrack of our lives and is unique in that it can sometimes help us re-live a precious memory perfectly.

We aren’t able to jump back in time and reconstruct the relationships, settings, and circumstances that particular memory was centered around. However, a song is evergreen, and its unchanging nature gives us a trusted and firm foundation to revisit particular memories and piece together the details of something that would otherwise be long forgotten.

This is why some people can notice significant changes in their mood (either they become sad or they become happier) depending on what song is playing. Some songs might trigger sad memories, or certain songs could remind you of someone from your past who you miss.

Music is part of our evolutionary history as human beings. Music was recorded as early as 800 BCE, so it’s no wonder that our brains are attuned to absorb plenty of musical information.

Your music taste depends greatly on your background and early exposure to music. Most people develop and cement their music taste in their early teens. At this time, our brains are undergoing a wide swath of changes and have plenty of emotional information associated with sets of songs. A Deezer survey suggests that most of us stop listening to new music as early as 30. While it may be primarily due to our increased lack of availability, it’s no secret that our brains enjoy dwelling on the songs and nostalgic feelings of the past.

In other words, if you love listening to old songs rather than new songs, this is normal. Perhaps good memories from songs you know help regulate your nervous system.

Another interesting fact is that different types of sounds can trigger different emotions. Our brains are hardwired to interpret certain chord and tonal structures with separate sets of feelings based on our backgrounds. This explains why western and eastern listeners may interpret the mood of a song completely differently based on their auditory experiences.

The Healing Power of Music

Music isn’t just pleasurable, it can be very healing and good for your mental health too. Music has been proven to boost memory along with mood.

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easing evidence demonstrates music’s benefits in information recall in Alzheimer’s and dementia patients.

Even with brain damage, music can help patients call to mind highly specific details, serving as an auditory cue.  On top of that, music serves as a form of stress relief and can reduce agitation for many listeners on an everyday basis.

The Future of Music: Social Media Infusion

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As the future of music continues to change, it remains to be seen what effect this will have on our brains and the memories tied to music. With the rise of music-focused apps like Tiktok, many people are being exposed to more music and genres than ever before on a regular basis. Music streaming services such as Spotify also capitalize on a highly curated selection of music per user.

For example, users are given access to curated playlists such as “repeat rewind” or “your daily mix” which essentially bring together the songs you listen to the most. It remains to be seen if the oversaturation of sound will dilute our associations, or conversely allow us to recall more of the mundane moments we spend consciously or subconsciously absorbing music through our phones.

There’s no denying that the power of music is truly magical. A single listen to a nostalgic song can physically improve your mood, and bring you right back to where you were when you created the sonic association with a specific memory.

Is it in Your DNA to Have Musical Abilities?

If you love music, have you ever wondered if you’re genetically inclined to have musical abilities? Find out through CircleDNA if it’s in your genes to be musically gifted.