One of the first things I did after my 90-mile hike with Nora in the North Cascades was play some music on the car stereo. We’d been in the wilderness for seven days, and other than birdsong, we hadn’t heard so much as a note for the entire time.
Matching our intuitions about music, researchers have found that music is an important influence on our memories. We associate songs with emotions, people, and places we’ve experienced in the past. This isn’t to say that music is the only influence on memory: the photos I took, the sights I saw, and the words I wrote about my hike will also help to preserve it in my mind for many years to come.
But it’s not easy to parse out exactly how music evokes memories. If I listened to “Rock Lobster” on the drive down from Hart’s Pass where we finished our hike, will “Rock Lobster” be associated with that memory, or with my birthday party in college where I danced wildly to the same song? Does music have a more powerful effect on memory than other influences, like images, words, or smells? We don’t know, but a group led by Petr Janata has taken an important first step in understanding how music can affect memory.
The researchers collected over 1,500 “preview” clips from the iTunes Music Store’s listing of the top 100 pop and R&B songs from each year over the past couple decades. The idea was to have a sampling of the songs college students were most likely to have heard while they were growing up. They recruited 329 students to listen to the clips. Each student heard 30 songs randomly selected from the most popular songs that came out when they were between the ages of 7 and 19 (so an 18-year-old would hear clips chosen from a different set of songs than a 29-year-old).
Each song was rated for familiarity and like/dislike, and then the students were asked if the song evoked any memories for them. They indicated what emotions they associated with the song, whether the memories were about person, place, or event, and what words they associated with the memory. Finally, for each memory, they were allowed to type in a description of what they recalled.
On average, the students recognized about half of the songs. So did the songs they were familiar with evoke stronger memories? This graph tells the story:
As the songs increased in familiarity, so did the strength of the autobiographical memories associated with the songs. Very familiar songs were more likely than not to be associated with a memory. Overall, about 30 percent of the songs elicited memories. Did these memories come from the songs of a particular period in the students’ childhood? It’s often seemed to me that people prefer the songs that came out when they were teenagers, even when they are 50 or 60 years old. Is this observation born out in Janata’s team’s data? Not exactly. Take a look at this graph:
The dashed line shows the total number of songs played per year in the students’ lives. The solid line shows how many of those songs elicited memories. The proportion of songs presented to memories elicited remains roughly constant throughout the study period — a song that came out when you were seven was just as likely to elicit a memory as a song that came out when you were seventeen.
While songs that were rated as “pleasing” were more likely to evoke memories than “not pleasing” songs, there was no consistent pattern as to which songs were pleasing — it seems to come down to personal preference: songs you like are more likely to be associated with memories. But do the preferred songs evoke the memories, or do we like the songs because we associate them with memories? Since this is only a correlation, this study can’t tell us.
This study also can’t tell us how accurate the memories are — it only gives us an idea of how music is associated with memories in the present. That’s not at all irrelevant, since our memories, accurate or not, are how we experience the past. Still, as the researchers point out, it would be very interesting to compare the types of memories evoked by music to memories from other sources, like pictures or words. A large number of the memories in this study were about dances or cars — places where people are likely to be listening to music. Maybe memories associated with pictures are completely different!
Petr Janata, Stefan Tomic, Sonja Rakowski (2007). Characterisation of music-evoked autobiographical memories Memory, 15 (8), 845-860 DOI: 10.1080/09658210701734593