Why does music bring back memories? What does science say?

DURHAM: On your way to work, you are walking down a busy street. You will pass busker playing a song you haven’t heard in years. Now, instead of suddenly noticing what’s happening in the city around you, you’re mentally reliving the first time you hear the song. Hearing this part music takes you back to where you were, who you were with, and the feelings associated with that memory.
This experience is when the music comes back memories past events, people and places – known as musical autobiographical memory. And this is a common practice.
It often occurs as an involuntary memory. That is, we do not try to remember such memories, they just come to mind by themselves.
More recently, research has begun to determine whether music appears to be a good cue for recalling memories. First, music accompanies many special life events, such as proms, graduations, weddings, and funerals, so it can play an important role in reconnecting us to these self-defining moments.
Music also often captures our attention because of the way it affects our minds, bodies and emotions.
When music captures our attention, it increases the likelihood that it will be encoded in memory along with the details of a life event. This means that it can be an effective reference for remembering this event years later.
Positive memories
In a recent study, a colleague and I found that the emotional nature of a piece of music is an important factor in its ability to serve as a memory aid.
We compared music with other emotional memory cues that a large group of participants rated as conveying the same emotional expression as the musical excerpts we used.
This included comparing music to “emotional sounds” such as nature and factory noises, and “emotional words” such as “money” and “tornado”.
Compared to these emotionally congruent cues, music evoked no more memories than words. But what we found was that music consistently evoked more positive memories than other emotional sounds and words.
This was especially true for negative emotional stimuli. Specifically, sad and angry music evoked more positive memories than sad and angry sounds or words.
Music then seems to have the ability to connect us to emotionally positive moments from the past. This suggests that the therapeutic use of music can be particularly fruitful.
How and when
The familiarity of the piece of music also, perhaps unsurprisingly, plays a role. In another recent study, we found that more familiar music evoked more memories and recalled more memories.
Part of the reason that music can be more effective for memories than our favorite movie or book, for example, is that we often revisit songs throughout our lives than we do with movies, books, or TV shows.
Circumstances when listening to music can also play a role. Previous research has shown that involuntary memories can resurface during activities where our minds are free to dwell on our past. These activities usually do not require our attention and include things like commuting, traveling, housework, and recreation.
These types of behaviors are almost identical to those recorded in another study, where we asked participants to keep a diary and record when music triggered a memory and what they were doing when it happened.
We found that everyday activities that involve listening to music, such as traveling, doing housework, or running, are the most likely to lead to involuntary memories.
This is in contrast to other hobbies, such as watching television, which may require us to focus more on the action in our minds and less on past scenarios.
Then music isn’t just for reminiscing, but the times we listen to music most often seem to be times when our minds can wander anyway.
Music also happens during many life events that are special, emotional or self-defining – and these types of memories are easily recalled.
Indeed, the power of music to connect us to our past shows how music, memories and emotions are connected — and some songs seem to act as a direct line to our younger selves.

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