Music and memory have a fascinating chemistry that can be hard to understand. We spoke to Dr Jakubowski to learn more.
Recently someone asked me: “If you would have to listen to only one song for all your life, which one would be?” Without hesitation, I answered: “Fragile by Sting but Stevie Wonder’s version”.
If someone would ask me for a movie, I wouldn’t have the answer on the tip of my tongue. But when it comes to music, I knew exactly which song to choose.
This song is my all-time favorite one. I listen to it almost every day. Despite that, the history of this song is not related to me and it was written years before I was born, I find myself very connected to the lyrics.
This song was written and performed by Sting and besides in English, Fragile, has its versions in Spanish and Portuguese. Sting wrote this song in 1987 as a poem about Ben Linder who was an American engineer who was killed in April 1987, at the age of 27 by Contras, a loose confederation of rebel groups.
Nonetheless, the touching story behind this song is not the purpose behind why I am writing this article. Even though when I first heard this song, I did not know the story behind it, with years I’ve created my own story (stories) with Fragile.
When an artist gives his or her art to the world, everyone can create their own stories in their minds, right? That’s the power of music.
Fragile triggers a lot of memories in me. The first time I was in a camp in 2014. My first job interview in 2015. Friends. Lovers. My sisters. And the list goes on and on.
The Power Of Music And Memory
To understand deeply the relationship between music and memory, Youth Time Magazine interviewed Kelly Jakubowski, Assistant Professor at Durham University, Department of Music.
Why does music play such a role in our memories?
Music tends to accompany a lot of our ‘important life events, such as weddings, funerals, and graduations and thereby becomes entwined with these important milestones in our life stories.
In addition, pieces of music are something we re-engage with a lot throughout our lives, much more so than, for example, favorite books, films, or even TV shows.
Re-engaging with music over and over also means we often reactivate a memory over and over, which can strengthen the memory and make it more accessible.
What is a reminiscence bump?
A reminiscence bump is a phenomenon that memory researchers have found in which people are more readily able to recall memories from the period between adolescence to early adulthood (approx. ages 10-30 years) than memories from other lifetime periods.
What triggers memories more: the lyrics, music, singer, or all of them together?
One study to date systematically compared all these things and found that there weren’t many differences in terms of the memories triggered by hearing the actual song vs. reading the lyrics, reading the song title, or seeing a picture of the singer.
However, it’s likely that seeing the title of a song or its lyrics will activate ‘musical imagery’, that is, mental playback of the piece of music in a person’s mind.
Thus, it is likely that even just seeing some lyrics from a song (or its title) will spontaneously bring to mind the whole song itself, and thereby trigger more autobiographical memories.
Essentially, it’s hard to separate out these different elements of the music, and they are so closely coupled within our memories!
Text, Music And Memory
Text learned to music is better remembered when it is heard as a song rather than speech. Why is it like this?
Music can facilitate memory for text because of its relatively predictable features – melodies often have a quite steady beat and predictable structure which act as a scaffold to help us to remember what lyric comes next.
There may also be motivational factors involved; for instance, music often captures our attention since it is enjoyable to listen to, and we know that emotional stimuli in our environments are remembered better than non-emotional ones.
What is the link between music and nostalgia?
Nostalgia appears to be one of the most common emotions evoked by listening to music; for instance, one 14-day study of music listening in everyday life found it was the fourth most reported emotion evoked by listening to music.
This further underpins the idea that music and memory are highly intertwined.
Getting A Taste For It
When do you form your music taste?
Several studies have also shown that musical tastes develop around this ‘reminiscence bump’ period (age 10-30), thus musical preferences and music that becomes attached to autobiographical memories are closely linked.
There are a lot of people saying that music taste shows a lot about one’s personality. Is there any scientific research that approves that?
Jason Rentfrow and colleagues have done a lot of research in this area. They have found various correlations between musical genre preferences and personality traits.
It should be noted, however, that since this is correlational data that we do not know for sure that personality causes musical taste, or whether, for instance, personality shapes some of our other choices/interests that then lead to the development of our musical tastes.
Music To The Rescue?
How does music help Alzheimer’s patients?
Some studies have shown that musicians with Alzheimer’s disease are often still able to play their instruments with a very high degree of proficiency.
Some impairments have been found in the ability to learn new music or recognize previously known music, although several recent studies have shown that music is still a strong trigger for autobiographical memories in patients with Alzheimer’s.
At the end of the interview, I asked Dr. Jakubowski the same question I’ve been asked. “I have eclectic musical tastes… so choosing just one song would take me weeks to decide,” she replied.
Now I’m making this question to all the readers of Youth Time Magazine: If you would have to listen to only one song for all your life, which one would be?
To answer, leave us a comment on our Facebook page or stay on the Magazine and read another fascinating music article.
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