Earworms,  Music & Memory

Music and mind wandering

Hello Dear Reader,

How are you?! It feels like a lifetime since I last wrote on my blog. My baby girl arrived safely, 2 weeks late, on May 17th. We named her Penelope in honour of her great grandmothers, Pilar and Patricia – she is the next great Lady P!

I am very grateful to everyone who supported me during my pregnancy and during the last 5 months of Penelope’s life. A big thank you also to everyone who sent kind messages of congratulations. I read every one and they were hugely appreciated. Especially at 3am when I had a screaming baby in my arms!

Penelope is now getting into a nice routine. She has fairly regular naps during the day finally, which means I can do some blogging again. Of course I want to make sure my little lady gets the very best of my attention while I am still on maternity leave so I apologise if these posts are irregular, but I will do as much as I can…

…Mummy needs to jump start her brain again and think about something other than nappies, reflux and feeding schedules!

A new paper drew my attention this week as it related to the last blog that I posted here. Ih that story I introduced you to our brand new lab based earworm capture technique also known as the “Pretty Woman Paradigm” (because of the film clips we used).

You can check out that blog by clicking here.

Earworms, tunes that get stuck on repeat in our heads, are part of a larger family of cognitive experiences that we call ‘mind wandering’ or self generated thought. They include mind pops (random thoughts that come to mind), snippets of memories, future planning and sensory experiences like sudden food cravings.

All of these thoughts are generated within a stream of consciousness that runs alongside our perceptual and sensory focus on the ‘here and now’, and the cognitive demands of processing the world around us.

Mind wandering related cognitions are incredibly pervasive in our everyday life, some estimates put them at 30-40% of our daily mental activity. The new paper looks at the ways that different types of music influence our mind wandering experiences.

The paper is called ‘Effects of Sad and Happy Music on Mind-Wandering and the Default Mode Network’ by Liila Taruffi, Corinna Pehrs, Stavros Skouras & Stefan Koelsch . It is free to access in Nature Scientific Reports.

The authors of the study were interested in the effects of happy vs. sad music on mind wandering. There are a lot of studies that have looked at the impacts of musical emotions on behaviour, but far fewer have looked at the impacts on our thoughts – obviously because this kind of study is much harder to design.


Now however, thanks to studies like those with earworms, we have new techniques to measure internal cognitions. Plus we have brain scanning as a way to look at the underlying activity that is concurrent with reported cognitive experiences. Brain activity associated with mind wandering typically occurs in the ‘default mode network’ and includes structures within the medial prefrontal cortex, and the medial and lateral parietal cortex.



So what are the emotional consequences of mind wandering?

When our minds wander to thoughts focused on the future or those rated as interesting there is a reliable increase in subsequent positive mood. Similarly, future thinking can reduce cortisol levels following social stress.

Conversely, there is an association between mind wandering and negative affect in healthy as well as depressed individuals, often related to thoughts of past events.

The unanswered question is whether music with a sad and/or happy emotional tone can modulate the contents/ type of mind-wandering we experience. If it can, then music might be an effective mediator of mental experiences that are often assumed to be ‘random’ or beyond our conscious control.

The new experiments

1 – The new paper started with an online study of 216 people using thought probe sampling. People listened to happy or sad music and occasionally reported, when prompted, the contents of their thoughts and how aware they were of their thoughts at the time; this latter meta awareness measure was taken as a proxy that the thoughts were the result of mind wandering.

2 – A second experiment had a similar form to experiment 1 but made sure that the happy and slow music had equal tempos. The reason why will become clear shortly.

3 – A third experiment took the method into the brain scanner. 24 participants (12 female) took part in whole-brain fMRI scans while they listened to 4 minute blocks of sad and happy music (with the same tempo) with their eyes closed.

The results

Sad music evoked significantly stronger mind-wandering compared to happy music

Meta awareness was significantly stronger during happy music compared to sad music.

Sad music also provoked more thoughts about the self compared to others.

Tempo had an independent effect, as shown in the figure below, hence the importance of replicating the emotion finding in experiment 2, when tempo was controlled.

Diminished attention to the music during the sad condition is in line with the decoupling of attention from external stimuli, which is typical of mind-wandering

In terms of the content of the mind wandering episodes, images (compared with words) were the dominant modality for both sad and happy music, pointing to a strong link between visual mental imagery and music processing.

In terms of the brain scans, sad music, compared with happy music, was linked to greater centrality within the core nodes of the Default Network. Greater centrality within this network is associated with mind wandering.


Mind wandering appears to be stronger when we listen to sad music compared to happy music, as is evidenced by both self report and by the activity of the brain.

Notably, the results revealed that participants’ mental activity while listening to sad vs. happy music was self-referential, suggesting that our mind-wandering often strays to personally significant matters.

However, the data did not support the hypothesis that these music-induced episodes of mind wandering are typically rooted in our past experiences and memories. The authors put it very nicely when they concluded:

“Our study suggests that the multi-faceted emotional experience underlying sad music, often described by listeners as melancholic yet pleasurable, shapes mind-wandering in a unique way, qualitatively non-identical to mind-wandering triggered by “everyday” negative mood. This points to a fascinating relationship between emotions evoked by artworks and thought”.

The future

This study looked at the short-term effects of music listening. Next it will be interesting to discover whether longer term listening habits (e.g., regularly listening to sad and/or happy music) can affect the propensity to mind-wander in similar ways.

The authors also point out some potential educational and clinical implications of their findings:

“The diminishing effect of happy music on mind-wandering may be beneficial for sustained attention during task performance in educational contexts, and reduce rumination as a repetitive style of thinking associated with depression. The stimulating effect of sad music on mind-wandering, by contrast, could be harnessed to improve creativity, social cognition, and decision-making...”


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