Music and Memory

We’ve all experienced this: hearing a song triggers a memory. For me, for example, the song “Peggy Sue” (Buddy Holly and the Crickets, 1957) triggers a memory of a car ride in the 1950s, driving through my hometown, with the song on the radio, and my Mom at the wheel of our rounded, light-blue plymouth. I could go on and list dozens, or hundreds of songs and associated memories. There’s something special about music and memory.

Precisely my memory of the Plymouth

The Science Times section of today’s New York Times has a lovely article about nostalgia. (“What is Nostalgia good for? …“). An associated piece asks readers to reflect on personal songs and associated memories (The Nostalgia Playlist). Read them; interesting and fun.

The NY Times article cites studies that make use of the ability of music to elicit memory, but the fact that music elicits memory is not explored. I have no particular insights about how and why music memory and nostalgia are related. But a few thoughts.

One is that there is a well established relationship between place and memory. Places evoke memory and memory evokes strong feelings of place. I’ve explored these relationships in a couple of blog posts, elsewhere (“There are places I remember” and “Place to Memory Associations“). Music is part of the mix: music evokes place memories and places evoke music memories. When you do a song-memory test on yourself, how vivid are the locations? My guess is that the place of the event-memory will be very clear.

Another thought is the importance of memory and nostalgia in creating a sense of yourself. I think of my life as a time-line, with specific events as landmarks along the journey. Below is a sketch I made to illustrate this point — the notion that our sense of self is based on memory and projection of what we may do in the future. In the figure, vertical lines are landmarks, specific remembered events that help define who we are. Music seems to be an aid in triggering memories and solidifying a coherent identity. 

There’s lots of Neuroscience behind this. Nostalgic memories involve the hippocampus. Listening to music involves the auditory pathways, auditory cortex and sensory association cortex. Emotion likely involves the amygdala. The combined percept requires connections among these regions. It’s clearly complicated. Consideration of how the brain processes music and triggers nostalgic, emotional memories is left for another day.

I find music, nostalgia, and memory some of the joys of life.  Fortunately, music and nostalgia seem to have important functions. Your thoughts? Please comment.

John Kubie

This entry was posted in by John Kubie, Childhood, Learning and Memory, Mood
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John Kubie

About John Kubie

I work at Downstate Medical Center in Brooklyn, NY, where my time is divided between research, teaching and avoiding committees. In grad school I studied olfaction in snakes and salamanders, but I’ve been studying the rat hippocampus and its relations to navigation and memory since the 1980s. Bob Muller, Jim Ranck and I were among the first to characterize hippocampal place cells recorded in behaving rats.

Outside of science (and perhaps inside) I’m a boring guy. Interests include people, movies, philosophy, travel, computers and family. I’ve been blogging for less than a year, but it has become a strong interest and hobby. The other blog is http://coronaradiata.net.

2 thoughts on “Music and Memory

  1. I found this really interesting. I’d like to raise a couple of points:

    My personal experience is that the memories can be negative as well as positive. I have often had to turn off music that has evoked a period in my life where I was unhappy, as the association has made me sad. memories are not always good!

    Additionally, not everyone by any means has this strong connection. In the past when I have been able to describe in great detail exactly what a song is conjuring in my mind, some people I have been with have been quite surprised, as they do not have this experience at all. As for so much in life, I think people sit on a spectrum in terms of how sensitive they are to this music and memory link.

    I would be interested to know your thoughts.

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    • Harriet,
      Thanks for the comment. I agree on both points.
      The “reason” for the link between music and memory (or happiness) is not clear (at least to me). How did this system evolve and what are its functional benefits? My guess — and little more than a guess — is that humans, compared to ancestors, have highly evolved language and music. Both involve common features of auditory processing. My guess is that both are related to the highly developed social organization of early humans. Language communicates specific information, and is largely one-to-one. Here it gets more speculative. My guess is that music, for early man, had a group synchronizing function. It promoted social cohesions for group action. As such, music is more about instilling common emotion than specific information. This does not get us to a linkage to specific memories, but, perhaps, close. If the social group has common experiences with emotional load, recalling these will add to the synchronizing effect and group cohesion. Very very speculative. Others have written about his, but can’t recall specifics at the moment.

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