Why music and memories are so intertwined

The brain is doing something slightly different when storing certain memories that occur while you're listening to your favorite song.
Posted at 9:06 PM, Apr 10, 2023

Many people have certain songs that speak to them or that take them back to a specific moment in their life, and there's a reason these memories are so engraved in our heads.

Scientifically speaking, music helps the brain build memories.

Dr. Amy Belfi, a researcher and professor of psychological science at the Missouri University of Science and Technology, did a study comparing reactions to music versus seeing pictures of celebrities. She found the memories people had looked different.

"What we found is that the music of memories tended to be more episodically detailed," Belfi said. "So they had more components that were actually parts of memories of events from your life, whereas the face cues, the celebrities, were just triggering more factual statements about the people and not as much vivid or rich detail."

Plus, music can be a context clue that gets the brain to remember the details of a given moment. 

"When you hear it later, it kind of puts you back in that context," Belfi said. "We can't ignore the emotional component of it ... that highly emotional things are remembered more, and music is just a good emotional cue."

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As for the songs that can stand out the most, it's the songs a person liked between the ages of around 15 to 30 that tend to stick with them the most. 

"I think people tend to have more memories from that period of life — that adolescence, early adulthood period of life," Belfi said. "That's when a lot of life-defining things happen to you: graduating high school, graduate college, getting married, having kids ... We also know that that's when people tend to develop their preferences."

So, what's happening in the brain when music is building and reactivating these memories?

Dr. Kiminobu Sugaya, a neuroscientist at the University of Central Florida who teaches a class on music and the brain, says the brain is structured to see music as more distinctive and less forgettable than regular speech. 

"When you learn the ABCs, how did you learn?" Sugaya said. "By putting it to music; that's easier to learn it, easier to memorize it. But if you memorize it as ... no music, then easy to forget."

Sugaya said the brain is also doing something slightly different with how it stores the memory.

"The hippocampus is the center of the thinking, making the memory and then recalling the memory," Sugaya said. "But by aging, hippocampal function loss starts. But if the amygdala can fire, activate the hippocampus, then the hippocampus can work better."

This can be huge for providing some care for older people, especially those who have Alzheimer's disease or dementia. Research already shows that individualized music can help boost behavior and mental health, at least in the short-term.