Memory Recall

Tapping into Memories with Music

Using music to cue our memory and improve recall

By Arnold
October 25, 2019

You have a dream vacation coming up. A visit to a new winery. A new country. Maybe a staycation. One thing is certain. You want to enjoy it as much as you can. And you definitely want to remember it for as long as you can.


Photos, of course, are obligatory. They serve as wonderful reminders — external ones — of enjoyable times had. But capturing photos is sometimes at the expense of living in the moment and being fully immersed in what’s happening.


Fortunately, there are deeper reminders — internal ones — that we carry with us 24/7: our memories. But our memories are not always as readily available as we might like — especially as we get older. But there’s a tool we can deploy to help us — music.


Memory Cues: What the Science Says

Strong evidence suggests nearly everything we experience is stored in our long-term memory in some form. Often the connections to those memories are broken. But all is not lost — they can still be retrieved.


Cues can be used to trigger dormant memories.


Memory cues are any stimulus — external or internal — that prompt our minds to recall a particular memory. A song. A scent. The feel of a treasured memento in one’s hands. In addition to stimulating mental and emotional responses, memory cues can even prompt physiological changes in our bodies by subconsciously triggering a myriad of associations stored deep in our minds. These associations are built from past experiences — and help us to interpret our current ones.


It gets interesting when we consciously use memory cues in the present to help us remember in the future.


The Connection Between Songs and Memories

We all have a particular song that immediately transports us back to a place, time, person, or event that holds special meaning. It isn’t just one or two songs that can trigger memories, it’s many.


In a 2009 study, Dr. Janata from UC Davis played random songs from the Top 100 charts when his subjects were 8 to 18 years old. Of the songs that subjects recognized, more than a whopping 75% were associated with a specific memory the subjects had. This is huge. Songs truly are foundational cues for memory. Scientifically, this is because the medial prefrontal cortex of your brain, which is involved in retrieving memories, also links music, memory, and emotion.


Your Music, Your Memory, Your Joy

Furthermore, it has been found that the memories triggered by music are more likely to be happy ones. In a 2013 study, Baird and Samson from the University of Newcastle in Australia found that most of our memories triggered by music are positive, not negative. And, even more interesting, the triggered memories were of an individual person or group of people, not of places or events. In other words, songs and music connect us more to each other.


Now, the Good Bit

We can consciously use music and songs every day of our lives to enhance our ability to remember and enjoy our experiences in the future. Try this simple technique with a new album. Listen to it repeatedly during your next trip. Your brain will build associations between the music and the people sharing the experience with you. When you play that album again, long after your shared adventure, the memories, thoughts, and emotions felt during that trip will come flooding back — to be enjoyed more intensely and joyfully than ever before.


This technique doesn’t have to be limited to vacations. You can do it at any time. Be mindful about creating future memories by consciously selecting the music you play each day as an ambient background to whatever you are doing.


Try this yourself! Log into My Stories Matter and capture the memories that are resurfaced when you play song cues from your adolescence.