Maureen McGovern doesn’t need to take gingko biloba to boost her memory, she has a much better remedy: the songs. We’ve all had the experience of losing our keys or not remembering a task from one room to the next, so why is it when we’re driving and a long-forgotten song comes on the radio, not only do we remember all of the lyrics, but experience vivid memories from years ago?
Petr Janata from UC-Davis’s Center for Mind and Brain thinks he might have found an answer. In February 2009, Janata completed a study that suggests the region of the brain where memories are held also serves as a hub that links familiar music, memories, and emotion. By looking at images of people’s brains, Janata saw that the medial prefrontal cortex actively tracks chord changes in music, but also lights up when one recalls personal memories. He suspected that there would be a connection between specific songs and autobiographical memory, and his study discovered that the more powerful the personal memory evoked by a song, the greater the brain activity. In conclusion, music is deeply connected to the part of the brain where we store the building blocks of our identity.
Unlike the current location of our keys, a superficial short-term and easily forgotten memory, autobiographical memory is a form of long-term memory that consists of all of the events and experiences we have had. We tend to form autobiographical memories most strongly around emotional events in our lives. This starts a self-reinforcing cycle: music evokes emotions, the emotions trigger memories, and vice versa. Families, communities, and cultures also share common autobiographical memories, and this feeling of connection is what makes shows like A Long and Winding Road so pleasurable. By engaging the group autobiography of the Baby Boom generation, by recalling the personal, social, and political context of these songs, the show inadvertently provides an internal sense of social support and connects us to others. Triggering a recollection of our musical histories reinforces our identity and strengthens our sense of self and meaning. And you thought you were just having fun.
Oscar Wilde once observed, “Music is the art most nigh to tears and memory.” This pithy characterization points to the complicated and layered relationship between music, emotion, and memory. Of all the arts, it’s fair to say that music is the most biologically entrenched. Music that makes us feel sad slows our heart rate, just like actual sadness does, while happy music quickens our pulse in the same way feelings of happiness do. We fall in love to music; we sing hymns of worship and mourning; our first philosophers proposed a world order based on vibration and melody; our earliest and most enduring epic stories were sung. It might not help us remember names, but if we’d like to remember how sweet life can be, sing a song.