The connection between music and our memory.
If you take a moment to think about the song “Happy Birthday”, it may bring you a memory of circling a table with your friends, eating cake, or blowing out candles when turning eight years old.
“I think of when I was very little, like six or seven, and my family would sing ‘Happy Birthday’ but in three different languages. First in English, then Spanish, then French,” said senior Gabriela Fischer. “I think it weirded out my friends a little bit, but it was super fun.”
Music has the power to capture some of our most vivid memories – taking road trips with family, playing Just Dance with friends, or the soundtrack of a movie you used to watch.
If you were to recall your most vivid memory from your childhood, it would most likely be connected to a lot of emotions that you felt during the time.
These events and stories that you can recall are because of implicit memory. Implicit memories are memories that we recall unconsciously; they are remembered when we feel an abundance of emotion. The reason for this is that these situations, where we may feel immensely happy, sad, or angry, are more likely to have an impact on our lives.
When you listen to music, it animates every part of your brain more than they usually are and evokes many emotions; these emotions are tied to the memories that they help create.
Imagine the movie Inside Out where our memories are contained in spheres that are the color of the emotion that they correspond with. But some memories are tied to music, and there is a sticker that has the name of the song that is associated with it. Whenever that song is played, it is sent back into our minds to play the memory that you made previously.
This is why when we hear a song that may have been overplayed, it brings back memories that are hard to navigate. We simplify these memories and have the song or album correlate with a season of our life.
The Music & Memory Organization uses music as a tool to treat patients with Alzheimer’s by playing music from their childhood.
“As a musician myself, having composed many songs over the years, I’m acutely familiar with the idea of creating something that’s memorable,” said Justin Russo, program director at the Music & Memory Organization. “But that’s not what brought me to Music & Memory. I just wanted to work in an organization that helps people with music.”
Some of the benefits of playing music for Alzheimer’s patients include reducing agitation, reducing the risk of falling, improving swallowing and nutrition, giving a sense of calm and providing an alternative to mood-altering medications.
“So for example, if someone is having issues with nutrition,” said Russo, “by playing the music 30 minutes before mealtimes, breakfast, lunch and dinner can activate their speech and their cognition that allows them to be more present for the eating experience.”
If we look at this connection between music and memory, we can see how it can apply to our own lives as we are growing older.
“If you consider what happens when you’re a teenager and you’re listening to music, there’s all this emotional memory that starts to blend in with our experience,” said Russo. “Like it’s just a part of our lives. I just think that there’s just something very important about that that we’re just beginning to understand.”
When we look at music and how it blends with our emotions and memories, we realize how much it makes up our everyday lives.
“There’s this real intergenerational component to music and memory because we’ve all had this relationship to music,” said Russo. “We all have it our whole lives. And so music is special for all of our lives.”