Music and Memories

The soundtrack of our years

An old man turned ninety-eight
He won the lottery and died the next day
It's a black fly in your Chardonnay
It's a death row pardon two minutes too late
And isn't it ironic... don't you think

Yes Alanis, I do think, but I’ll tell you what else I think is ironic, how I can remember every word of this song but most days I can’t remember why I went upstairs?

It fascinates me that music seems to be a super-highway to our memories, how on hearing even a few bars of a song it can transport us straight back to a time and a place and even how we were feeling at that precise moment. It’s like an invisible key that can unlock a memory that you’d forgotten you even had. What makes it even more intriguing, is how far back it stretches.
Only last week I was listening to the radio and Young At Heart by the Bluebells came on, I was immediately taken back to my junior school assembly hall for the farewell to one of our teachers – no less than 30 years ago.  Who knew that little memory was stored up in my grey-matter? 

Why can we remember songs so easily?

I wanted to delve further into this to understand why we seem to be able to retain music so easily.  A key reason is repetition.  When we like a song, we tend to listen to it, over and over again whether that be consciously or subconsciously.

Music Psychologist Tiffany Williams explains “Music is everywhere; in shops, bars, cars, gyms and restaurants.  Most people have no idea how often they have listened to their favourite song, but it can add up to hundreds even thousands of times.  Repeated exposure to any stimulus increases the likelihood of retention, especially when the information is identical each time, as it will be with a recording”.

Tiffany Jenkins wrote a great article about why music evokes memories for the BBC, based upon an interview with Composer Robert Snyder, who quotes “A large part of memory takes place in the unconscious mind. There are aspects of memory that are remembered implicitly, that is, outside of consciousness. Implicit memory systems involve different parts of the brain than explicit memory systems.”

Add to that we are physiologically rewarded for listening to music we enjoy.  Our brains are always problems solving, the combination of pleasing melodies with rhythmic words and repetition creates a workout that is most enjoyable for our brains, so much so that it rewards us for listening by releasing happy hormones (dopamine).  

Music and memories

Okay so this starts to explain why we are able to remember music.  But I want to learn more about the connection to memories.  My husband and sometimes play a game, usually in the summer when the evenings are long, we sit outside with an ice cold G&T and watch the sun go down.  We take it in turns to play a track (usually something from the 80’s, 90’s/2000’s) you have to guess the year it was released; I’m always amazed how often we actually get it right because a song can take you back to a moment in time where you can pin-point exactly where you were.  Why do certain songs trigger our memories? It’s not every song but there seems to be a catalogue, almost like a soundtrack to our years that awakens these connections and transports us back in time. 

Apparently, it’s not just me that has pondered this thought, whilst researching I discovered a few studies about this phenomenon.  In the last decade research around this specific subject has gathered pace.

Saoirse Gleeson wrote an article for spunout and quotes Maria Borck a Music Therapist and Scholar who explains how music and emotional connection contribute to this. “It has been found that our brain is more likely to focus on events or stimuli with emotional significance. Sensory information brings attention back to events that had emotional importance in our lives. Like when we taste a sweet which takes us to the first time you tasted it, where you perceive a smell which reminds you of the day you went shopping with your best friend, and such. Music is a very strong tool to induce emotions and therefore, to evoke memories.

Going back to that article by Tiffany Jenkins for the BBC, she explains that many of our memories will have taken place during an influential period of our lives where a large part of our nostalgic memories come from

“Notably, memories stimulated by music often come from particular times in our lives. Classic hits take us back to our teenage years and our twenties, much more than songs of later years. Psychologists have called it the ‘reminiscence bump’. It may work this way because this is an especially important and exciting time in our lives when we are experience things for the first time and when we become independent. Everything is new and meaningful. Later, life becomes a bit of a blur”.

So there you have it, music serves as a sophisticated filing system for memories that have been collected. From early adolescence, our memory banks were taking everything in, and those memories are strengthened by emotional connections associated with music. 

Perhaps the farewell to my old teacher meant more to me than I knew.