Music and Memory: What’s The Connection?

You are sipping hot coffee on a normal Sunday, listening to the rhythm of the rain. That’s when a song hits your memories and shakes your brain cells to their roots. Before you know, you are playing that song in your head and reminiscing a specific event in the past. One can talk about the meaningful lyrics that form a beautiful song, how it adds to the peppy or melodious tune but memories behind each song add, even more, the sense of euphoria. Ever wondered how music and memory go hand in hand?

Apart from music, one can evoke memories through smell, place, colours, feelings, etc. What makes music peculiar in its surge of memories is the fact that it comes with a sense of collective identity, a social element. Cretien van Campen, the author of the widely acclaimed book The Proust Effect: The Senses as Doorways to Lost Memories sheds light on this very point. He opinionates that “smell differs in that it is a personal memory, whereas there is something very social in our experience of music. Music is often shared with peers”.

Crétien van Campen on Twitter: "Webpost on policy symposium #ECPP2014"
Cretien van Campen

Come to think of it, the gigantic presence of music in our lives is astonishing. Not only is it a source of escape from reality or a soothing tune to the ears but it also, in its mere existence, connects people through a collective identity. It is surprising that most of us are not aware of this collective identity; how we are connected to another person who has similar memories associated with a particular song or through a similar genre of music.

I tested this idea by asking my friends and fellow PinkLungi members to share a song that strikes a memory. Astonishingly, many songs and memories were exactly the same and I was able to find connections (similar memory) between people who are total strangers.

How does music evoke memories?

The hippocampus and frontal cortex are the two main areas associated with memories. Suppose we consider an imaginary door through which information passes through the hippocampus and the frontal cortex. The retrieval of these memories is not that easy. It requires a key and music acts as a key amongst several other keys. Some of you may say that not all the music we listen to is associated with memory. And well, that’s true. Not all keys are compatible. What makes the music key compatible is defined by various elements like its rhythm, melody, and images that it evokes.

Another reason why it evokes memory is that music is associated with motion or movement. A study by the Academy of Finland showed how music activates parts of our cerebrum and cerebellum that are associated with our motor abilities.

So when our editor Govindan says that he listens to ‘Aaro nenjil ‘ when he misses home, it is the imagery of his hometown, the way back home and the feeling of nostalgia that opens up the memories. To put in a pop culture reference, music is to memory what porotta is to beef.

What kind of memories does it evoke?

There are no default memories but depends on the person. It ranges from a special person to a special place that you visited once or even a time period of your life. But as mentioned earlier, music brings in a social element – the song that your dad sings when he is drunk, that one album that you played during your family trip, the gig that you attended with your collegemates, the song that reminds you of a close person who is no longer with you.

Neuroscientists even suggest the scope of using music therapy for Alzheimer’s, dementia, depression, etc. 

Is there any specific music?

It is often music from the past, something that you probably haven’t heard in a long time. You’d be surprised to find out how you’ve not forgotten the song or the memory. If only we could remember differentiation and integration this way! *deep sigh*

It needn’t be a song with full-fledged lyrics, sometimes background pieces of music, instrumentals, or even serial soundtracks and ad jingles can have this effect. We wouldn’t be surprised if you can sing the good old ‘kaakiri naatil sooryan illa’ jingle.

Abhiraj reminisces the time when he used to wait for the intro song of the serial ‘minnukettu’, “Ashakushale pennundo has a separate fanbase. I used to wait for that serial just for this intro song. It reminds me of my childhood”.

Apart from evoking memory, music can improve one’s memory. Studies have proved that classical music and certain background music can sharpen memory and can help in accelerated learning. Studies and research are still being conducted to prove the validity of this hypothesis.

There are several studies that deal with different elements of the correlation between music and memory, and these scholarly papers are easily available for your perusal. Coming to think of it, do you think that you should sue Spotify for putting ads in your mental movie?

Arja Dileep
In an attempt to balance between the aesthetics of an aspiring writer and the goofiness of a kid.


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