No matter who you are, I can almost guarantee that as soon as you hear the ‘dun-na na na na’ on the strings, you’re ready to stand and belt out your national anthem: Untouched by the Veronicas. Even though you haven’t properly listened to the song in years, you can still somehow recite every ‘ooo aaa aaa, ah la la la’ within this glorious 4:15 minute masterpiece–it just seems to come back to you. Why does this happen? And further, why can I do that but not remember the PSYC3001 Advanced Psychological Measurement lecture I just watched?
‘Magical music never leaves the memory’ – Sir Thomas Beecham, 1962
The notion of remembering involves our long term explicit and implicit memory, which helps to recall times, places, and even our trivia-winning facts. Within that, there’s another type of memory called ‘episodic’, which is just more specific. The episodic memory, when prompted by music, can tap into the where, when, what, personal, and emotional contexts. As well as this, music memory can also tap into our ‘semantic’ memory, the knowledge part of memory–all of which play a part in our recall. Even in patients with Alzheimer’s Disease (deterioration of the brain), music has been an antidote for preserving parts of memories. Specifically, the ability to play an instrument appears to be unforgettable within musicians with AD. Therefore, there are clear neural connections that music has for our memory, although differing per musician to non-musician, music is still seen to connect our little neuropathway maze in our head in ways researchers find hard to define.
Some say this is all down to muscle memory. You know how you can still remember to clap the cup song even if you haven’t practiced it since Year Six? This is because the brain remembers the muscle mechanisms it takes to create a skill–even if it was a decade ago. The best way to remember core items is through eliciting an emotional response, which is why we tend to remember our best days and our worst days and not the mediocre ones. Music, through the melodies, the pitch, as well as the lyrics, elicits this emotional feeling, making the content easier to remember. This is where the powerhouse Temporal Lobe activates: a big glob of the brain in the bottom middle part, using both left and right hemispheres associated with memories, emotion, recognition, language comprehension and the Primary Auditory Cortex. It is interesting to note the layout of this section of the brain. The auditory cortex is within the same lobe as memories and emotions which highlight this connection between music and these components.
Interestingly, songs that are unfamiliar even have impacts and activate different areas of the brain including the hippocampus which is involved with long term memory.
So, I guess music is a memory superpower, but can we use it to remember our content? To an extent, yes. You’ve heard of the Mozart Effect, of how ‘listening to Mozart will make you smarter’, but it really just depends on one’s personal background.
Back to my initial question: of not being able to remember my lecture. Although the content is *really* interesting, it just doesn’t tap into any of the important factors that are associated with memory, thus making it more difficult to remember. Music, on the other hand, taps into our emotional, personal, and multiple other components in aiding memory, which is why it’s so much easier to recall a song than it is to recall the last 30 seconds of lecture content. So, the next time you’re sitting in your lecture theatre, try to think of some ways to elicit some type of emotional response (besides sadness because, trust me, I’ve tried, and it just makes you forget and then you’re also sad) to try and get that content cemented into the depths of your memories!
A psych and music student consumed within the world of music psychology and how music can affect our brain in ways we don’t even realise. Whether it’s a playlist to accompany you to your confidence or dissecting the brain to see why we like the sound of Harry Styles, if it involves music and psychology – I’m there!