Music and Memory: 5 Awesome New Psychology Studies

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Music aids language learning, helps injured brains remember, causes widespread brain activation and more…

Music has tremendous power over memory.

Hearing an old song can take you back decades in the blink of an eye.

Psychologists have been fascinated by this connection between music and memory.

Here are five recent psychology studies which demonstrate the intimate link between music and memory.

1. Singing aids language learning

The link between music and memory is so strong that it can help you learn a foreign language.

Research by Ludke et al. (2013) found that people trying to learn Hungarian, a notoriously difficult language, performed much better if they sang the Hungarian phrases rather than just saying them.

The researchers think that the melody may provide an extra cue which helps embed the memory.

2. Music helps injured brain remember

People who have suffered traumatic brain injuries (TBIs), such as in a car accident, often have problems with memory.

Music is increasingly being tested as a way to help bring back forgotten autobiographical memories.

A recent study had participants who had suffered severe TBIs listening to number-one songs from their lifetimes to see what memories were evoked (Baird & Sampson, 2013).

The memories brought back were mostly of people or a period of their lives and were broadly similar to those evoked by control participants who did not have a TBI.

Compared with using a standardised interview–the Autobiographical Memory Interview–playing number-one hits to people who’d suffered TBIs was more effective in eliciting memories.

3. Widespread brain activation

One of the reasons music may be so powerful is that it activates such large areas of the brain.

A recent brain imaging study found that music activated the auditory, motor and limbic (emotional) regions (Alluri et al., 2013).

The study found that whether their participants were listening to the Beatles or Vivaldi, largely the same areas of the brain were active.

The motor areas process the rhythm, the auditory areas process the sound, while the limbic regions are associated with the emotions (Alluri et al., 2013).

4. Music can take you back two generations

Classic hits can easily take you back to your teens and twenties.

Most people have particularly strong memories of this time in their lives–psychologists have called it the ‘reminiscence bump’.

But, perhaps surprisingly, one study has shown that people also have mini reminiscence bumps for the music their parents listened to, and even for their grandparents’ music (Krumhansl & Zupnick, 2013).

The study’s lead author, Carol Lynne Krumhansl, explained:

“Music transmitted from generation to generation shapes autobiographical memories, preferences, and emotional responses, a phenomenon we call cascading ‘reminiscence bumps’.

“These new findings point to the impact of music in childhood and likely reflect the prevalence of music in the home environment.”

Another study has shown that we don’t even need to hear the tune for the memories to come flooding back–the words are enough (Cady et al., 2008).

For a whole generation, the words “Ice, ice baby”, and for another generation “…living in the gangsta’s paradise” are enough to take them back in time.

5. A unique musical hallucination

The power of music on people’s memory is sometimes frightening.

A recent study from Frontiers in Neurology reported the case of a woman who, one night, suddenly began to hear music playing in her head, like a sort of internal, unstoppable jukebox (Vitorovic & Biller, 2013). The problem continued for months.

When she hummed the songs to her husband, he recognised some of them, but she herself didn’t know what they were or where they came from.

It seemed the songs were so deeply rooted in her memory that she wasn’t consciously aware she knew them. They only came to the surface during these night-time hallucinations.

She was treated with an anti-seizure medication and her symptoms improved a little.

This is the only known case of this kind of musical hallucination.

→ Continue reading: Memory and Recall: 10 Amazing Facts You Should Know

Image credit: flyzipper

About the author


Dr Jeremy Dean is a psychologist and the author of PsyBlog. His latest book is "Making Habits, Breaking Habits: How to Make Changes That Stick". You can follow PsyBlog by email, by RSS feed, on Twitter and Google+.

Published: 11 December 2013

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