Why Does Music Evoke Memories?

Music appears to be a good cue for evoking memories, according to research that has only recently begun. First, because music is commonly associated with many distinct life events, such as proms, graduations, weddings, and funerals, it can play an important role in reconnecting us with these self-defining moments.

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Emotional nature of a piece of music is an important factor in how it serves as a memory cue. We compared music to other emotional memory cues that had been rated as conveying the same emotional expression as the music excerpts we used by a large group of participants.

This included contrasting music with “emotional sounds” like nature and factory noises, as well as “emotional words” like “money” and “tornado”. When compared to these emotionally matched cues, music elicited no more memories than words. However, music consistently evoked more consistently positive memories than other emotional sounds and words.

Unsurprisingly, familiarity with a piece of music also plays a role. Another recent study found that listening to more familiar music evokes more memories. This familiarity brings them to mind more spontaneously. So, one reason music may be a more effective memory cue than our favorite film or book is that we typically re-engage with songs more frequently over our lifetimes than films, books, or TV shows.

The circumstances in which we listen to music may also play a role. Previous research indicates that involuntary memories are more likely to resurface during activities that allow our minds to wander to thoughts about the past. These activities are typically non-demanding of our attention and include commuting, traveling, housework, and relaxing. Indeed, the ability of music to connect us with our past demonstrates how music, memories, and emotions are all intertwined. It appears that certain songs can act as a direct line to our younger selves.

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