Music & Emotion,  Music & Memory

Memory for emotional music is strong at all ages

Hello Dear Reader,

Today you find me on a train to lively Glasgow from my hometown of York: A long journey, nearly 4 hours in total. Plenty of time to get out of my work head and think about my lovely blog.

I have missed the blog in the past few weeks. I managed to keep up with conferences, jobs/ studentships, and tools for you, Dear Reader, but finding time to read and write outside of my research is a tough task.

Luckily I can rely on Mariani Foundation emails to keep me up to date as to the many latest releases out there in the world of music psychology (Neuromusic news). If you have not yet signed up for their free fortnightly alert emails then I recommend you give it a go.

On the Mariani menu this week was a paper from Irene Alonso and colleagues. Alonso is a visiting graduate researcher at the Davachi Memory lab, and a graduate student at the Neuropsychology and Auditory Cognition Lab at University of Lille and the Brain and Spine Institute in Paris. Her latest interesting paper, in Frontiers in Ageing Neuroscience is called ‘Emotional memory for musical excerpts in young and older adults’

It is a fact, well known to us all, that emotional memories have a habit of hanging around for a long time in our consciousness. Whether happy, sad, frightening or embarrassing, the memories of our emotional life experiences stay with us far longer than everyday memories for unremarkable sights and sounds.

Common sense suggests that one of the reasons music survives well in our memories is that it can have this powerful emotional ingredient. Like a food with a strong aftertaste, music can have that element of emotional fire that means that its memory is easily reignited within mental experience and relived, time after time.

This topic has another level of intrigue to me, given my recent work in the field of music and wellbeing for individuals living with dementia. One of the reasons music has promise as an adjunctive aid for dementia support is that anecdotal and scientific research suggests music can survive in cases of memory loss. The emotional component of music may part explain this phenomenon.

The new study

A new research paper from Alonso and her colleagues tested the theory that emotional music lasts longer in memory in younger (mean age 22 years) and normally ageing adults (mean age 75 years). They aimed to use realistic music stimuli in a move away from the use of MIDI short excerpts that might have limited the impacts of music in previous studies, leading to overall poor memory in just about everyone.

The authors predicted an ageing effect on recognition memory whereby older adults would perform less well overall on a music memory test. However, they predicted both groups would have better memory with more arousing emotional music, and that this boost would be even stronger in older adults.

Based on previous research they also made the prediction that more negatively emotional music (i.e. sad valence) would be remembered less well by older compared to younger adults.

The people

All the individuals who took part in the study were non-musicians, according to a short written assessment of musical expertise. All had a similar level of education and reported normal mood and cognitive states as assessed using standard psychometric instruments (POMS for mood; MMSE for mental state).

The music


Musical stimuli consisted of 48 excerpts of 5 seconds taken from different symphonies written between 1830 and 1954. The idea was to choose music that was unlikely to be familiar to the majority of non-musicians (i.e. not played regularly on public radio, TV or in public places).

In a pilot study 175 participants rated the arousal (high – low) and valence (positive – negative) of over 200 excerpts that were eventually selected down to 48. These 48 five-second clips were grouped into 16 sets (4 for each emotional combination) of three excerpts consisting of one target and two distractors used for immediate and delayed memory conditions.


The method

The authors did all that they could to try and make sure they got musical memory off the floor. It is very often the case that memory for new music is poor (a floor effect, as we say in psychology) so they pulled out every trick in the book to help memory.

During the encoding phase, people were presented with an intentional deep encoding task, instructed to rate the valence (positive/negative) and arousal level (high/low) of 16 items. This encourages people to listen deeply to the sound. They were also told that they had to retain as much of the music as possible for a recognition test. Finally, the experimenters allowed participants to hear all the music a second time, without having any overt task to do. Just listen and concentrate!

Now – that may not be a realistic representation of the way we listen to music in the real world, but in the lab you have to go to these lengths as initial memory for music is so bad that it gets in the way of measuring anything. So you have to super fast track the normal memory process!

Immediately after the music presentation and rating stage, an old/new recognition test was presented. Sixteen ‘target’ clips of music that the participants had heard before were intermixed with 16 ‘distractors’, in a randomized order. Participants reported if each clip was old or new and give a rating of their confidence. After 24 hours everyone repeated the test with 16 new distractors.

The results

The first thing to cheer about is that authors got decent memory scores with their method. Hurray! Nicely above a chance level that might indicate guessing, though of course nowhere near perfect – always the way with new music.

In any event, the level is good enough to look at answers to their questions:

  • Did older adults remember less well overall? Yes, the well-replicated finding that overall memory tends to be better in younger adults was found in this study.
  • Were there interactions with emotion? No nothing at all. Both groups had the same pattern of reactions to different types of emotional music.

The pattern was as follows: people remember music rated higher on emotional music better than music rated significantly lower on emotional feeling.

Furthermore, arousal and valence had different effects on memory. When stimuli were high on arousal, people had equivalent memory success with all valences. However, when the stimuli were low on arousal (calming, peaceful) people remembered positive clips (happy) better than negative (sad) ones.

After 24 hours, all participants had a better memory for high compared to low arousal music, and for the negative compared to the positive clips.

Interestingly, overall memory for the clips did not to deteriorate very much for either group at 24 hours, a finding that might speak to the power of emotional music in memory, certainly compared to studies I have seen that have tested musical memory after such a delay. Though of course, the intensity of the memory encoding in this study will have had an impact.

The discussion

The lack of an interaction between age and emotional music memory replicates that seen with other stimuli (scenes, words, pictures) on occasion. But the majority of the literature still suggests that older adults have a different memory process, such that they have poorer memory for negative stimuli: A popular idea but, as it turns out, not one that can be replicated consistently.

Why do the overall results matter? It suggests that the power in music, the ability to recognize and react to emotion therein, survives the typical ageing process rather well (at least up until our 70s, as tested here). If that is the case then there is promise that the power of music in memory can support wellbeing where memory is compromised – at all ages.

This study lends support for the use of music as a form of reminiscence therapy. In the case of my research in adults living with dementia, it provides one argument as to why I see emotional reactions to music and not other forms of familiar stimuli.

The questions are as always with control – is music really special in this way or would a similar design with other stimuli (perhaps art, film or even food) work just as well? Also, how do the reactions we see in healthy ageing adults compare to individuals living with dementia? Finally, what about other forms of music outside the classical genre? Hopefully fascinating work will soon emerge in these areas.

Right, Dear Reader, that is me over the Scottish border! If you do travel from York to Edinburgh by train remember to sit on the right hand side of the train – the view of Durham, Newcastle and the north coast is simply breathtaking. Now I am on to an evening of merry-making with my chums in one of the UKs finest places of mirth. I will raise a glass for you 🙂








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