A friend shared this photo on Facebook yesterday, and it really hit me how true it is, how much one song can affect us. This post is not going to be about London or living in the UK, but it’s a post that nearly every human being on earth can relate to. We often associate songs with certain people or events in our lives. Maybe it’s the lyrics of the song, or maybe it’s the situation in which you first heard the song played. Whatever the case may be, that song will always bring you back to a moment in your life.
But why is this? From a psychological standpoint, it has been found through scientific study that “listening to music engages broad neural networks in the brain, including brain regions responsible for motor actions, emotions, and creativity.”** In one study, music was even effective in getting patients with severe brain injuries to recall personal memories. In another study, Petr Janata, associate professor of psychology at the University of California Davis, found that music triggers responses from certain areas of the brain that are responsible for memories, acting as a “soundtrack for a mental movie that starts playing in our head.”** Specifically, music activates the limbic system, part of the brain involved in processing emotions and controlling memory. In his paper Music, memory, and emotion, Dr. Lutz Jäncke, professor of psychology at the University of Zurich, discusses another study regarding music and memories:
“Another recent study examined the memories and
emotions that are often evoked when hearing musical
pieces from one’s past. In this experiment, subjects were
presented with a large set of short musical excerpts (not
longer than 30 seconds per excerpt) of past popular songs.
Using a set of newly designed questionnaires, the authors
found that, on average, 30% of the presented songs evoked
autobiographical memories. In addition, most of the songs
also evoked various strong emotions, which were mainly
positive ones such as nostalgia.”***
Dr. Jäncke writes in detail about other studies that have focused on music associated with memories and emotions, and you can find the link to his paper at the end of this post.
So what does all this really mean?
Because music triggers strong emotional responses and because emotions are involved in processing memories, music may actually help form our memories. These songs that we associate with people and events are woven into the memories themselves, and as a result we often recall a memory along with its “soundtrack.”
Music is a very powerful thing. Scientifically, it has been shown to stimulate people’s minds, even those of people who have suffered brain damage. But it goes beyond that; music penetrates our souls, working itself into our lives in a deep and personal way. Taylor Swift’s lyrics may remind you of your first love. Beyonce’s “Halo” might bring back memories of you high school prom. And I’m sure for many people, the music of Jimi Hendrix mentally transports them back to Woodstock 1969. We often find that these memories are very specific; one can visualize with great clarity the look in your then-boyfriend’s eyes or the solemn funeral procession of a loved one. Whatever song it is and whatever feelings and memories it evokes, we can all agree that our world would be rather colorless without music. There’s a great quote that I often see posted by musicians and other artists:
Because of the significance of art and music in our lives, we must never forget to encourage creativity and imagination in our society. We need to support the people who create this art and allow them to share their creative process with the world. Recently, there was outrage over a subway musician in New York City being arrested for busking. There has been no evidence suggesting that he was in any way breaking the law by publicly performing his music in the subway, and yet NYPD smothered his creativity by taking his guitar out of his hands and leading him away in handcuffs. It’s a well-known fact that as school districts suffer budget cuts, arts programs are the first to go. If music isn’t taught to children in school, where is our future generation of musicians going to come from? We as a society need to pull together to show support for creativity. Not everyone can be a doctor, a lawyer, or an engineer. That’s not to say we don’t need these people in our society; on the contrary, we have a great need for them. But for some people, these professions won’t be enough to satisfy their creative hunger. We need to support performers and artists, rather than discourage them from going after their artistic pursuits. The world needs music; it seems our future memories are depending on the music created today.