Music is a Powerful Tool for Memory!

Has a song ever come on the radio and you’re instantly transported back to a time from your youth?  It’s more than just a memory—it’s so vivid you can practically smell it and taste it and feel it.  In fact, the detail may be sharper than something much more recent.


Record player

Why is that?

Music can help to encode memories. The very structure of music—with melody and phrasing—makes it easier to recall later.  When young children are trying to learn the alphabet, we often use a sing-song tune to make it easier to remember and sing along, “now I know my A, B, C,’s…”.  The tune of the music serves as a cue for memory. When your brain struggles to retrieve the information from the hippocampus directly, the cue of the melody and rhythm associated with the information provides an alternate route to access the same information.


If you try and memorize a list of words, you’d be using your explicit memory.  Explicit memory is intentional—you concentrate on recalling the past. It’s the type of memory that allows you to answer factual questions like: who, what, where, when and why. 


Implicit memory, on the other hand, is less intentional. It happens almost unconsciously as you absorb information through a combination of all of your senses, and thus uses numerous parts of the brain.  Implicit memory is often very powerful and connected to a strong emotional reaction.  Music connects to implicit memory and can often draw out strong emotions.


When that song comes on the radio and instantly transports you back to your youth, it is implicit memory that is connecting the music and emotion.  In fact, the emotion you feel may not even match the emotion in the song; a sad song may evoke memories of a happy time, or a happy song could be associated with a sad memory.  You may also notice that the music which triggers the strongest memories typically comes from your youth—your teenage years and your twenties. 


This time in life is characterized by gaining independence and having many new experiences, all set to the soundtrack of the era. Often, it will be the pop music of the era, the top 20 or top 50 hits that are being played everywhere you go which further cement the memories and the music as being very specific to that timeframe.


Because music connects to implicit memories and strong emotions of the past, it can be a successful tool to help people access memory when their explicit memory system is not retrieving memories as efficiently.  If someone’s explicit memory has been damaged by dementia or Alzheimer’s, or if they’ve suffered a traumatic brain injury such as a stroke, music can create a bridge to implicit memories.


a microphone for singing

Music can also affect speech.

While it would seem like singing and speaking are pretty similar functions, our brains perceive them as totally different activities.  Speaking is a left-brain activity whereas singing is a right brain activity.  When someone suffers a stroke to the left side of their brain, speech is typically affected.  They may have expressive aphasia where they know exactly what they want to say, but the words won’t come out.  Fascinatingly though, people with aphasia are often able to sing!  If the left-brain stroke did not affect the right side of the brain, then the ability to sing may remain intact. Once set to a melody, it becomes possible to utter words.


Initially, someone may be able to sing the words to a familiar song. Over time, they can train their brain to sing alternate words to the same familiar tune.


Beyond the possibilities of speech, music can serve as a form of communication. It is a way to connect with someone who otherwise can’t speak or otherwise communicate. It offers the opportunity to share a moment together where you can be completely present, enjoying the music. By selecting music that matches their youthful era, you can help your elderly loved ones to revisit strong, emotional implicit memories from their youth.  You may be surprised and delighted at the strong emotional reactions that music can create.


So break out the old records and cassettes, or create a custom playlist, and crank up the volume!

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