The Power of Music and Memory.
Sir Elton John
Music and Memory. A Strong Connection
My husband has an incredible memory. Ask him what he wore on his first day of kindergarten and he will describe the pattern on the shirt. For me, it never comes that easily. Even my college years feel like a blur most of the time.
I think part of it is due to the fact we rarely carried cameras around those days unless it was a special occasion. Of course, there were no such things as "smartphones" in the 1980s.
So one day I'm driving in the car listening to "Like a Virgin" by Madonna. Suddenly I had a vivid memory. I was on a dance floor at a club in Minneapolis and two of my college roommates were with me. We were laughing together, dancing in a circle and I felt an emotion that I can only describe as freedom.
I went back home and immediately googled the song. Yes--a huge hit in 1984. The year I graduated college and began my first job. I really felt I was on to something, and began to feel like an archeologist, digging into my own history.
The Soundtrack of My Life
I wanted to go further with it. I went down a 70's and 80's top 100 hit list. I closed my eyes and let myself feel the music.
The song "Long Time", by Boston is playing and I am 16 in my friend Danny's basement watching several high school friends doing shots of Jack Daniels. I am so nervous, and in this moment I can still feel it as clear as day. I had never had a drink before and I was trying to think of a way to politely turn down the shot without losing face.
Hooray! I remembered something about high school! I must admit..most of high school and early college was miserable for me, so it's no wonder the memories don't flood back. And honestly, many of them I'd rather forget. But I could not believe how vivid some memories became when a certain song was playing.
The Science of Music, Memory and Emotion
In 2009, Dr. Peter Janata at UC Davis published a study called “The Neural Architecture of Music-Evoked Autobiographical Memories.” In it, his subjects listened to 30 different tunes from top 100 hit charts from years when they were between the ages of 8 and 18. During this time, Janata did an MRI on each subject to record brain activity.
The subjects were then asked whether the tune was familiar, enjoyable, and associated with any particular memories for them.
The surveys revealed that the subjects recognized on average about 17 of the 30 musical excerpts. Of those, 13 were associated with a moderate or strong association with a specific memory. The tunes that related to the strongest memories also had the most vivid and emotional responses.
When Janata looked at the corresponding MRI's of the subjects, he found something even more interesting. The degree of vividness of the memory corresponded to the amount of activity on the upper part of the pre-frontal cortex in the brain.
“What’s cool about this is that one of the main parts of the brain that’s tracking the music is the same part of the brain that’s responding overall to how autobiographically salient the music is,” Janata said.
"Because memory for autobiographically important music seems to be spared in people with Alzheimer’s disease, Janata said, one of my long-term goals is to use this research to help develop music-based therapy for people with the disease."
My Mom And My Daughter, 1995
Music, Alzheimers And My Mother
Janata's research makes a lot of sense to me. My mother was diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease in the late 1990s. Unfortunately, it quickly escalated to a point where my father couldn't take care of her anymore. We ended up finding a nursing home that specialized in "memory care."
What truly stood out about this place was they had an entire wing just for Alzheimer's patients. It was bright, cheery and had a lot of nostalgia around like pictures from the 1940s, an old-fashioned popcorn machine and lots of ladies and mens hats from that era hanging on the walls.
But the biggest thing I remember was the music. They were always playing the sounds of the big bands of the 1940s and they even brought in live music on occasion. My mother was a huge music lover-particularly of that era. I remember as a kid she would put those albums on and dance around our living room.
There came a point when she couldn't remember who I was. It was heartbreaking for our family. But almost on cue, when a favorite song would play, her eyes would light up and she would get a huge smile on her face. At that moment-I knew she was in a very happy place. She would sometimes even be lucid enough to recognize us in those moments. I always felt there was a connection.
Sometimes Our Strongest Musical Memories Come From Questionable Music
Afternoon Delight? Really?
Hate to say it but we can't always account for taste when it comes to musical memories. I've got a real vivid one with this song, but I'm not going to share it. (Hint: it involved a first kiss.)
What Are Your Best Musical Memories?
I'm going to challenge you. Go to the "Top 100 Hits" of your own childhood soundtrack. Sit back and just listen. See if you can come up with some memories of your own that you didn't realize were even there. If you're like me, you'll end up downloading a few on your computer or phone. Sometimes the soundtrack of your life is just what you need.
The Powerful Effects of Music in Memory Care
Study Finds Brain Hub That Links Music, Memory and Emotion