Music & Memory

Thoughts on musical memory

I am quite a busy bee at the moment but I hate to leave the blog unattended for you, dear reader. As a compromise I have reprinted here a shortened version of a blog I wrote for Ohlogy about the power of musical memory. The original can be found here.


A while ago I had a nice email from a media student who was working on her final dissertation project. She was interested in the nature of musical memory and wanted to chat to me for her planned broadcast. It was a very interesting hour. Her first question went straight to the heart of the matter.

Is musical memory special?  My simple answer to this is usually, yes! But here are a few points to back up this assertion:

1)      Music as a ‘super-skill’ – Music stimulates many sensory and motor systems all at once, especially if you have had musical training. But even if you have not, then music still contains complex sound changes, intricate hierarchical patterns, a ‘beat’, and rhythms that trigger multiple brain areas. Memories are more likely to be easy to recall if they have been through a process of elaborate encoding as opposed to simple encoding.

2)      Music is everywhere – The ubiquity of music, in our shops, offices and homes, means that our memory system gets lots of practice at encoding music as part of other experiences. The role of music in many of our important ceremonies and life events (e.g. weddings, birthdays and New Year) means that some of the most emotional times of our lives, and our subsequent memories of them, will have music involved.

3)      Music is personal – Music has no overt referential meaning; unlike language it does not directly refer to the things around us. As an example, try to imagine a piece of music that everyone would agree was about a tree – fairly impossible right?! This concept is what Ian Cross (Cambridge) has termed music’s ‘floating intentionality’. In practice, this means that any one piece of music can be interpreted in different ways by different people. It can be a ‘blank slate’ which we can imbue with whatever meaning we would like. This means that music is inherently flexible, and can be built into memory in a way that is completely unique.

Next question: why is music able to trigger happy memories from so long ago? One important effect to consider is context dependent memory. One of the most famous studies in this area was done by Godden and Baddeley (1975). They designed a real-life study to determine how much influence the context of a situation has on our memory. They tested memories of deep sea divers in two situations; learning a list of words either on the beach or deep under the water (with waterproof lists of course!). They then tried to recall the words in the two situations. And they found a context dependent facilitation effect; if you learn underwater then your recall is better underwater than on land, and the opposite if you learn on the land.

What does all that mean for music? If you learned something in the context of a certain piece of music then your recall is likely to be improved by the presence of that music. And if you were particularly happy at a time in your life, and music was present, then music can help to facilitate that memory of happiness and bring it to your current time.

And then for the final question: Why does musical memory survive so well into old age. At least part of the answer comes from all that I have been describing so far.

1)      Musical memories are strong because they are made up of lots of different parts – sound, sights, movements and so on. This means they can resist the breakdown of neural pathways as we age.

2)      Music is often tied up with very important events in our life so it carries a degree of emotional attachment. Emotion not only helps to code a memory in a more elaborate way (making it stronger) but means that music can be triggered when we are in that emotional state again or indeed trigger that state when we hear it again. This is why music holds so much promise as a form of therapy for people in depressive or anxious states, especially as we age.

3)      We have absolutely unique tastes in music. This means that any musical environment is inherently personal to us. This means that it is very important to personalise music, especially for processes like reminiscence therapy.

So musical memory is a uniquely powerful system that is at the heart of our understanding of who we are as people and what we have been through in our lives, and which can transport us back to our happiest times whenever we need.

Godden, D., & Baddeley, A. (1975). Context dependent memory in two natural environments. British Journal of Psychology 66 (3): 325–331. doi:10.1111/j.2044-8295.1975.tb01468.x.


  • Diana

    This is fantastic, thanks Vicki. How funny, I was just trying to explain the phenomena of how music aids in memory recall to a friend last night, and you’ve just done a much better job. Cheers!