Understanding the Application of Music to Your Memory

There is an intricate relationship that exists between music and memory.

Chances are you’ve experienced the phenomenon where you hear your favorite song from years ago and are easily able to recall all of the lyrics. This is not an uncommon experience for many people. This is because the words of the song become associated with the beat and rhythm, tying the two together in your brain. So, when an old song comes on, the beat allows your brain to access the lyrics that have been stowed away in your memory. Through the melody, rhythm, and beat of certain songs, they can enhance the way that your brain remembers things, and can make your memories more prominent.

There are two key components where music and memory correlate:

  • Music’s Role in the Formulation of Memories
  • Music as a Key to Memorization
  • How Music Can Combat Memory Loss
A wedding celebration with music.
A specific song can trigger a specific memory, such as your first dance at your wedding!

Music’s Role in the Formulation of Memories

Music plays a huge role in life’s big and small events, which correlates specific songs to specific memories.

It is likely that you have experienced memories that are tied to strong emotions being particularly clearer or easier to recall. Oftentimes, music is capable of evoking some sort of emotion within the listener. So, when you experience an event that also has a strong emotion attached to it, the music that is associated with that event has an even stronger correlation to it.

An example of this could be at your wedding. Wedding’s are typically associated with music and are full of intense emotions. When a song that was played at your wedding, whether for your first dance, the daddy daughter dance, or just to dance to, chances are you will be flooded back with memories of your wedding day.

These spurts of memories don’t just apply to large events that are only a day long. If a song is particularly popular during a specific month or season, and you listened to it a lot during that period of time, hearing it again can bring you back to that moment. This could be a song you associate with your time in college, a specific summer, or a bad breakup.

Young woman utilizes music to help her memorize.
The correlation between music and memories also transcends into memorization.

Music as a Key to Memorization

By understanding how music interacts with memory, you can use music to help your memorization skills.

With music’s role in formulating memories, listening to music while studying can actually help with memorization, and there are different ways you can take advantage of this.

The first way you are able to take advantage of music helping your memory is to assign lyrics to a beat, or new lyrics to an existing song, that contain the information you will need to memorize. This will allow you to recall the new lyrics when you need them, just as you are able to when you hear your favorite song years later.

Another way you can utilize music is to play a specific song in the background during your studying, and then sing it in your head when you need to recall the information. Doing this, you are performing a similar feat to when you hear a song, and you recall an event or a time period associated with that song. An added bonus to this option is that it may be able to help you relax during your exam, presentation, or whatever it may be.

Woman plays guitar for Alzheimer's patients.
Alzheimer’s patients are able to recall memories when they are exposed to familiar music. Image courtesy of Livin’ Upstate.

How Music Can Combat Memory Loss

While there is no cure to memory loss, or related diseases such as Alzheimer’s, music can help recall certain memories.

Knowing how music can enhance your memory, music therapists have applied this to patient’s that experience memory loss from diseases such as Alzheimer’s or dementia. The diseases have a large impact on patient’s memories and can often interfere with daily tasks.

While Alzheimer’s and dementia affect both long and short term memory, it begins in the short term memory, and has the greatest effect on short term memory. Since music tends to be stored with long term (permanent) memories, it is still accessible in the brains of these patients.

The major way that music therapy benefits Alzheimer’s patients is based on the way in which memories get associated with emotions. Memories that are more heavily based in emotions are harder for patients to forget. When a patient hears music that they recall, it stirs the emotional response along with whatever memories may be associated with the music being played.

No matter how long ago the patient last listened to the song, or how old the memory is, the patient can still experience a recollection of the song and the memories associated with it.

Music is also a welcome distraction for many Alzheimer’s patients, as it allows them to relax and oftentimes lifts their spirits. By boosting their mood, it can lower a patient's levels of anxiety and depression.

As far as the selection of music goes, you want to be mindful to pick songs that are from relevant periods in their life, along with genres that the patient particularly enjoys. Otherwise, the exercise of retrieving memories will not be effective, or as effective as it could be. If you are able to, it would be particularly beneficial to ask the patient’s loved ones if there are particular songs that could help spark memories for them. These could be songs from their wedding, a child or grandchild’s wedding, or a fun vacation!

With the way in which memory and music interact with one another, you can really utilize it and benefit from understanding how it works. Whether you use it to help with your memorization techniques, or benefit from how it can help with Alzheimer’s, there are plenty of benefits that you can reap from music.

Dean Pinnell
Dean Pinnell is a senior at the University of Pittsburgh studying Communication and Fiction Writing.
Learn More >>
Make a Difference

Become a Music Therapist with Incadence

Incadence is transforming the health care industry. By joining our team, you can be a part of this revolution and a leader in health care.

Contact Us