Why Does Music Trigger Specific Memories?

Have you ever heard that one song that evokes the same memory every time? Every time I hear Midnight City by M83 I think of the time I went to Vail and was snowboarding down a slope.  I can remember riding down the slope and looking at over a partly cloudy sky while listening to the song.  Every time I’ve heard it since then I picture the same scenario in my head, but I wondered why that was.

According to an article by Tiffany Jenkins of BBC, the hippocampus accompanied with the frontal cortex of the brain play a large part into determining what we remember.  The reason it is so easy to remember song lyrics is because the words are accompanied to a consistent beat, so this combination makes it easier for us to retrieve the memory.  We are constantly storing memories in our collective unconscious and subconscious, but it is a matter of retrieving them to determine if we truly remember something.  Jenkins in the article gives the example of signing your ABC’s.  When people go to recall where a letter is in the alphabet, they almost always sing the ABC song in order to retrieve the memory of the letter.  It is easier to remember anything to a beat.  Personally, my 7th grade algebra teacher taught us the quadratic formula to the tune of pop goes the weasel, and to this day whenever I need that formula I can instantly remember it if I sing the song.

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In regards to music bringing back a certain memory, when people listen to music it triggers parts of the brain that evoke emotions.  There are implicit and explicit memories.  Explicit memories are simple memories such as what you did 5 minutes ago, basically anything in your conscious mind.  Implicit memories are memories stored in the unconscious, yet they can still be retrieved by our conscious minds.  They also seem to last longer than explicit memories as they are usually attached to a certain emotion.  For example I remember riding down the mountain because I was extremely happy and paired that strong emotion with the song.  That event occurred over 6 years ago, yet in a week I probably won’t remember what I had for breakfast today because there was no strong emotion paired to me eating breakfast.

Another reason why music evokes these memories is because music is related to movement.  In a study published by the Academy of Finland, researchers found that music activates many parts of the brain.  Participants were given an MRI as they listened to music and researchers found that parts of the cerebellum and cerebrum that involve our motor abilities were stimulated while listening to music.  That along with the stimulation of the limbic system in the brain, which controls emotion, proves how music, emotion, and movement are all interconnected.  This explains why I was snowboarding, felt happy, and was listening to the song, and can now perfectly recall that moment to this day.

4 thoughts on “Why Does Music Trigger Specific Memories?

  1. Valerie Lauren Murphy

    Every time a song comes on that’s been made within the past 5 or 6 years I automatically classify it by what year I was in high school. It’s a pretty automatic reaction, I only have to listen to a few lyrics or even the musical intro of the song and I’ll be able to remember where I was and who I was with when I listened to the song years ago. If I had a very strong emotion attached to a specific song I’ll be able to recall more detail about the memory. I know that this concept of explicit/implicit memories comes into play with academics. If we learn something and can relate it to a personal event somehow, we’ll be able to recall that fact or piece of information easier and more clear than if we just tried to memorize it.

  2. Kameron Villavicencio

    Hi Casey! I found this article interesting because I love the idea of music and memories. I want to make movies (and also star in them) in the future, and music in movies in huge. I think it’s largely underrated, too. For me, personally, if the music doesn’t fit the scene, I’m annoyed by the person on staff for the movie who picked it. I specifically remember hating the ending credits song for Taken 2 but that’s besides the point. Or is it? Music is movies can also be done so well, and you forever associate a song with a movie, like Closing Time in Friends with Benefits. I found an article http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2776393/, that goes along with this idea that you discuss. The main idea is that music evokes strong emotions, and emotions help seal in memories. So you were obviously happy when you were snowboarding, therefore the mix of music and happiness is why you remember that time so clearly.

  3. Erin Nicole Kemp

    Baby by Justin Bieber always takes me back to middle school! I guess that would be an implicit memory because it happened so long ago. Sometimes songs remind me of specific commercials but I don’t know if that would be considered an implicit memory?

    1. Jaier Vicente Avecillas

      Well I think its the catchy beat and lyrics that we pick up we are very good at picking up beats that if we see something wrong with it or if its off beat we get this uneasiness about it. and there has been research and I don’t remember what article it was but I remember reading it and it said if you listen to the same song while doing homework it show signs that it can help

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