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The Soundtrack of Our Lives - the Special Case of Musical Memories

Does listening to songs from a few decades ago instantly transport you back to high school? Do you instantly revisit your wedding day in your mind when you hear the song you danced to as newlyweds on the radio?  Sometimes it feels like music sticks to our memories particularly well, or our memories stick to the music. Why is music such a powerful trigger for memory? Are the memories of our life events involving music somehow different from other memories of the past?
Memories may be one of the main reasons for the enjoyment of music. We listen to songs to revisit and relive personally meaningful or pleasant times from the past. For example, one study asked young adults to choose and describe one musical piece that they considered especially meaningful. The most common reason a piece was meaningful to the respondents was because it had a role in helping them overcome challenging or difficult life events. The second most common reason was the positive memories it elicited. This connection between memories and experience of meaning in music is not only true for the young. Research has shown that even among the elderly, the memories that come to mind due to music continue to make listening an enjoyable and meaningful experience. Furthermore, in individuals with Alzheimer’s, music remains a powerful route to memory and can be used to support the ability to recall past life events.
In research literature, memories arising during music listening are investigated under the term music-evoked autobiographical memories (MEAM).  A neuroscientific investigation has pinpointed that during the experience of a MEAM, music activates brain areas that are important for the retrieval of autobiographical information. MEAMs have been shown to be a very common experience among music listeners.

Are the memories evoked by music somehow more intense than memories evoked by other stimuli? According to recent findings, yes. In this study, researchers tested whether MEAMs were especially vivid. The researchers asked participants to listen to 30 different songs, and view pictures of 30 famous people, and report on what kinds of memories came to mind. The reported memories were then evaluated in terms of vividness. Vividness consisted of the number of details, related to, for example, perception of the surroundings (it was a sunny morning, with drops of dew making the grass feel moist and cool under my bare feet). According to the result, MEAMs were indeed more vivid than autobiographical memories evoked by pictures of famous faces.
Why would music-evoked memories be more vivid than others? Could they be more emotional? According to research MEAMs are usually highly emotional, and perhaps more so than memories triggered by other things. A comprehensive study on the types of memories that music evokes showed that the emotions associated with MEAMs were most often described as happy or nostalgic. Another special characteristic about MEAMs is that they are often also very social - the situations that people most reported remembering in the study, were social situations between friends and romantic partners, like dancing or driving in a car together. The situations that bring us together often contain music, and perhaps music through its power to enhance our emotions makes these situations stick to our memories particularly well.

Interestingly, another study has indicated that sharing MEAMs with others may play an important role in emotion regulation, and mental health during youth. In this study, participants answered questionnaires about different characteristics of their MEAMs, such as vividness (how detailed the memory is), coherence (how specific and logical the memory is), accessibility (how quickly the memory can be retrieved), emotional Intensity (the strength of the emotional experience when reliving the memory), sharing (how likely one would be to share the memory with a significant other such as a close friend or one’s spouse) or valence (how positive or negative the memory was). In addition, factors like the participants’ personality, emotion regulation skills, self-esteem and general happiness were assessed with the help of questionnaires. According to the results of the study, sharing of MEAMs, meaning the willingness to share the memory with friends, relatives or other close individuals, played an important part in emotion regulation and general happiness as well as mental health. The researchers speculate that sharing MEAMs with others may play an important part in strengthening important relationships, which in turn contribute to happiness and mental health.

In summary, research has shown that autobiographical memories evoked by music are common and enjoyable experiences. Their content is more vivid than that of other memories and reflects the special power that music has in people’s lives – it brings us together and heightens our emotional experience. Music-evoked autobiographical memories play a key role in musical enjoyment throughout life and according to preliminary findings, sharing of these memories may be an important process of emotion regulation, and even mental health. It’s a beautiful thought that music is so intertwined with our experiences that it becomes an important part of how we remember our past. We all have personal soundtracks for our lives.

Written by ketki karanam



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