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Let the Music Play Music is a powerful tool in helping us access emotions and memories

Read more Last updated: July 2019
In collection Music
Reading duration: 6 minutes

"Music is the shorthand of emotion", said Leo Tolstoy. Indeed research suggests that listening to music we heard in our youth helps us recall specific events, remind us of people we have forgotten and helps us revisit significant periods in our lives. Music doesn’t just have the power to evoke memories, it makes us feel a whole range of emotions. We take a look at the science.

“This song reminds me of when…”

The hippocampus and the frontal cortex are responsible for absorbing memories into our brains. But retrieving this information is not always easy. It doesn’t simply come on demand. Music helps because it provides a rhythm and rhyme and sometimes alliteration which helps to unlock that information. The structure of the song, as well as the melody and the images the words provoke, also help us with this unlocking process.

Many of the studies around this topic focus on subjects who have problems with their memories, for example those with brain injuries or Alzheimer sufferers. The results are astonishing. In a groundbreaking study, Amee Baird and Séverine Samson, from University of Newcastle in Australia, used popular music to help severely brain-injured patients recall personal memories. This was the first study which examined ‘music-evoked autobiographical memories’ (MEAMs) in patients with acquired brain injuries. The study involved playing a variety of number-one songs from the person’s life to both those with acquired brain injuries and to people with no brain injury. All participants were asked to record how familiar they were with a given song, whether they liked it, and what memories the song evoked. Interestingly, the highest number of MEAMs in the whole group was recorded by one of the acquired brain injuries patients. In all those studied, the majority of MEAMs were of a person, people or a life period, and were typically positive.

Research has also found that students who listen to music have better recall in their resulting exams. One study found that musically trained students tended to perform better on learning tests when they listened to neutral music, possibly because this type of music was less distracting and easier to ignore. Musically naive students, on the other hand, learned better when listening to positive music, possibly because these songs elicited more positive emotions without interfering with memory formation.

Music is now considered a beneficial treatment for depression. Music triggers vivid memories in sufferers and can assist people to recall difficult parts of their lives that perhaps were not necessarily as bad as they had thought. Hearing music, and remembering various experiences, can help them remember experiences which while might not always be positive, are more rounded.

Perhaps music cannot cure, but it can help to heal.

Music also triggers emotions

There are distinct correlates between music and different areas of the brain, many of which are intimately tied to emotional processing. Music that creates pleasurable emotions lights up the mesolimbic pathway, the reward bit of the brain that gives us happy feelings.

But there's also an argument that controversially suggests we aren't experiencing traditional emotions in response to music at all. What we're feeling, the theory suggests, is a kind of tension and relaxation in turns, based on whether or not our expectations of what a piece of music will do next are met. We feel happy, according to this idea, when the next note or movement fulfils what we think might happen, while we get frustrated or feel on edge when it doesn't.

Music often makes us feel like crying, because we experience a sense of awe and admiration. The feeling is a kind of wonder at realizing what other minds are capable of creating. Awe is described as sensitivity to greatness, accompanied by a sense of being overwhelmed by the object of greatness. In response to these emotions, we may experience goosebumps and motivation for the improvement of self and society.

Interestingly, the success of music in generating emotions has also crossed over into the commercial world. A recent report by the company Soundtrack Your Brand has shown that the type of music played in shops can affect how long and how much customers spend in them. One experiment in a Swedish electronics shop found that customers on average spent eight minutes more in the store and paid an additional 910 Swedish krona (an approximate 78pc increase in sales), simply when there was background music played, as opposed to silence.

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Digital transformation in the music industry

It used to be the case that if we liked a song we would wait for it to be played on our favourite radio station. Now, through the power of online streaming, our favourite hits are immediately available at the touch of a button. There are even apps which listen to background music and tell us the names of artists and songs if we are struggling to hear the song properly or to remember its origin.

If music has so many positive effects, then surely greater access to it is a positive development? Maybe. Opponents argue that the benefits of delayed gratification are well known and online music streaming offers us the very opposite: exactly what we want, when we want it. We used to invest in a handful of albums and artists, with whom we developed intimate relationships through repeated listens. We collected their albums and showed them off to friends and families. But now streaming services do all of this relationship building for us. This has led to the rise of a new music fan, one that values breadth over depth. One with a Spotify subscription rather than a record collection.

Online music streaming has undoubtedly brought music to the masses. But the convenience of it should never erode our connection to the music.

5 tips for better music listening

People with hearing difficulties have a harder time than most in experiencing the benefits of music. But this is certainly not impossible. Whether hard of hearing or not, here are 5 tips to help you experience joy from music in the modern world:

  • Appreciate the old, but try something new. With the amount of new material on offer, this is where streaming services come into their own. Always give a song three listens before dismissing it. Always listen to a song right until the end. The most important thing is to get out of your comfort zone and give new music a chance.
  • Play it loud (enough). There’s a time and a place for background music. Play music and sing to it without upsetting the neighbours, or making your ears hurt. Remember, however, to use earplugs in noisy surroundings and limit the daily use of personal audio devices.
  • Focus. Pick an album and listen to it without distraction. And not just while you are doing something else. Sit down and take the time to focus on the music.
  • Share your music with people, and ask your friends for new recommendations. Only then will you discover new artists, explore new music genres and experience the benefits of discussing new finds with others.
  • Choose an experience, not a song. Instead of thinking about what song you'd like to listen to, start by thinking about what kind of music best suits your situation. Long, painful commute ahead of you? Choose music which energises you and distracts you from the traffic.
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