You are walking down a busy street on your way to work. You pass a busker playing a a song haven’t heard from in years. Now suddenly, instead of noticing everything going on in the city around you, you’re mentally reliving the first time you heard the song. Hearing this piece of music takes you back to where you were, who you were with, and the feelings associated with that memory.
This experience – when music brings back memories of events, people and places from our past – is known as music-triggered autobiographical memory. And this is a common experience.
It often occurs unintentionally memory. That is, we do not make an effort to try to recall such memories, they just come to our minds spontaneously.
Research has recently begun to reveal why music seems to be such a good cue for recalling memories. First, music usually accompanies many distinctive life events, such as proms, graduations, weddings and funerals, so it can play an important role in reconnecting us to these self-defining moments.
Music also often captures our attention because of the way it affects our minds, bodies and emotions.
When music captures our attention, it increases the likelihood that it will be encoded in memory along with details of a life event. And this then means that it can serve as an effective cue to remember that event years later.
In recent research, my colleague and I found that the emotional nature of a piece of music is an important factor in how it serves as a memory cue.
We compared the music with other emotional memory cues that were rated by a large group of participants as conveying the same emotional expression as the musical excerpts we used.
This includes comparing music with “emotional sounds” such as nature and factory noises and “emotional words” such as “money” and “tornado”.
Compared to these emotionally congruent cues, music evokes no more memories than words. But what we found is that music evokes more consistently positive memories than other emotional sounds and words.
This is especially true for negative emotional stimuli. Specifically, sad and angry music evoked more positive memories than sad and angry sounds or words.
It seems, then, that music seems to have the ability to reconnect us with emotionally positive moments from our past. This suggests that the therapeutic use of music can be particularly beneficial.
How and when
Familiarity with a piece of music also, perhaps unsurprisingly, plays a role. In another recent study, we found that more familiar music evoked more memories and brought memories to mind more spontaneously.
So part of the reason why music can be a more effective cue for memories than, say, our favorite movie or favorite book, is that we tend to revisit songs more often throughout our lives than we do movies, books, or television. broadcasts.
The situations when we listen to music can also play a role. Previous research has shown that involuntary memories are more likely to return during activities where our minds are free to wander in thoughts about our past. These activities tend to be undemanding in terms of our attention and include things like commuting, traveling, House work and relaxing.
These types of activities match almost perfectly with those recorded in another study where we asked participants to keep a diary and note when the music triggered a memory, along with what they were doing at the time it happened.
We found that the daily activities that often go hand in hand with listening to music – such as traveling, doing housework or running – tend to lead to more involuntary memories.
This contrasts with other hobbies, such as watching television, which may require our minds to be more focused on the activity at hand, and so we are less likely to wander to scenarios from our past.
It seems, then, that music is not only good for evoking memories, but the times when we’re more likely to listen to music are the times when our minds are naturally more likely to wander.
Music is also present during many life events that are distinctive, emotional or self-defining – and these types of memories tend to be more easily recalled.
Indeed, the power of music to connect us to our past shows how music, memories and emotions are connected – and it seems that some songs can act as a direct line to our younger selves.
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