How Does Music Affect Your Memory? Here's Why The Connection Between The Two Is So Strong
Whenever I'm feeling particularly nostalgic for my childhood, I turn to a playlist I've built that really brings me back to that time in my life. Each classic rock ballad, old school Cuban song, and peppy Beatles jam instantly reminds me of the summer nights I spent climbing the old magnolia tree in my backyard. Research shows that not only do your memories affect your relationship with music, but it also works the other way around. How does music affect your memory? You might be surprised to learn how deep the connection actually goes.
And for what it's worth, I'm not the only one who's noticed this strong connection between music and memories. In a new essay for Elle UK, Taylor Swift wrote about the power of memory in the music she loves and the music she writes. For Swift, listening to a song has the ability to instantly connect her to a time in her past. "When I hear 'How to Save a Life' by The Fray, 'Breathe (2AM)' by Anna Nalick, or 'The Story' by Brandi Carlile," she wrote, "I immediately flashback to being 17 and on tour for months on end."
Whether she's writing an upbeat song or one that's about more painful memories, nostalgia is an important part of songwriting for Swift. "I love writing songs because I love preserving memories, like putting a picture frame around a feeling you once had," she wrote. "I like to use nostalgia as inspiration when I’m writing songs for the same reason I like to take photographs. I like to be able to remember the extremely good and extremely bad times." There's also a major scientific case to be made for the power of memory in music.
"The unique strength of musical memory has puzzled researchers for years," says Dr. Matt Johnson, a researcher and professor of psychology at Hult International Business School. "One reason seems to do with the fact that music is encoded by several different regions of the brain," he tells Elite Daily in an email. "While auditory regions in the temporal lobes are primarily involved, music also inspires vivid imagery (occipital lobe), as well as emotion (limbic structures)." As a result, he explains, this multi-region effect could really enhance the strength of a memory, he explains. "Musically-encoded memory may be more robust because of its broad distribution across several brain regions."
If you spent your early childhood years listening to Led Zeppelin, for example, you might have different tastes as an adult than you would if you'd grown up listening to, say, Bach. Because music relies heavily on your existing associations and memories, Dr. Johnson explains, your childhood can heavily influence your musical taste. "One interesting feature here is known as the mere exposure effect: The more we hear a song, the more we generally like it," he tells Elite Daily. "So if we were raised on a certain artist and heard them continually, this likely increased our preference for hearing their music."
This effect is not a hard and fast rule, though, and only works for songs that you found neutral or positive the first time you heard them. "If we hate 'Call Me Maybe' the first time we hear it," he says, "we're not likely to start liking it more with each new time it comes on."
Your brain can also use music to actually connect with your own emotions, says Dr. Sanam Hafeez, PsyD., a neuropsychologist and teaching faculty member at Columbia University. "The brain links music to all the personal data we hold dear to us. This is why music is so important in many religions and spiritualities," she tells Elite Daily, "as well as because it helps us express emotions like sadness, happiness, and even worship." This could also help to explain why someone who lives outside of their homeland might feel nostalgic when listening to music that carries traces of their traditional rhythm and melodies of their origins, Dr. Hafeez explains.
As for the specific connection between music and memory formation, listening to certain genres of music can actually improve your ability to form new short-term memories, according to a study published in the journal Modern Psychological Studies. The researchers split 60 participants into three groups, which were given either rap music, classical music, or silence to listen to. Each participant was then asked to complete a concentration game, which required them to turn over facedown cards one at a time until they found all of the matches in the group. The research showed that those who played the card game while listening to classical music were able to find all of the matches much faster than the group listening to rap.
Of course, if Cardi B's latest hits really seem to help you concentrate on the homework assignment you're working on, or the long report that you have to read for work, go for it, friend. The bottom line here is, music is a seriously powerful thing. Use that power to your advantage whenever you can.