Posted by: Jeff | October 20, 2009

Music and Nostalgia: Evoking Past Memory and Emotion

I’ve been digging back into the record collection a bit lately and sampling albums that used to be in heavy rotation before being shelved in recent years for newer releases.  Somewhat to my surprise, this has led not only to the rediscovery of a few old and forgotten gems, but also the evocation of very specific and sometimes vivid memories.  I’ve always felt that music, more than other social and cultural cues, triggers an especially strong recollection.

Art by definition is designed to spark an emotional response.  The Romantics stressed the utility of art in the form of paintings in order to evoke emotional reactions to social and political issues prevalent in modern society.  Though this may be among the first instances of formal adoption of emotion as a tangible objective of artistic work, it certainly wasn’t the first time that art as a form elicited such feeling.

Aesthetic art may connect with individuals on an emotional level, but it is hard to argue that it’s impact is as prolific as music.  Scientists have documented that visual cues provoke a more acute emotional response when paired with audio.  For this reason, Swedish director Ingmar Bergman argued that film is the most powerfully evocative medium of art: “Film as dream, film as music. No art passes our conscience in the way film does, and goes directly to our feelings, deep down into the dark rooms of our souls.” On some level this may be true – after all, how often does a piece of music make one cry on first listen?  Yet, upon repeat, does the intrinsic emotional value of film hold up over time?  Maybe, but I’d argue that this is a rarer occurence in film than in music.  Yes, music seems to have a lasting impact that not only triggers an emotional response, but one intricately tied to the past as well.

I’ve sometimes found it jarring how a specific song will bring back vivid recollection of a seemingly random past event or vague emotive moment in time.  For instance, when recently re-listening to Wilco’s Yankee Hotel Foxtrot album, I found myself transported to the campus of Washington University in St. Louis, where I spent a brief high school summer studying and living with a group that became very close-knit but has since drifted apart.  I haven’t been in touch with many of the people brought to mind by this album in quite some time, but the memory is still distinct enough to recall particular conversations and situations that would otherwise never again come to mind.   Why?

My time in St. Louis was a time of musical awakening for me, as it was deep in the age of the mixed cd, where the free exchange of music was widespread and prolific.  I still attribute large slivers of my musical taste to the many guys – Aaron, Rob, Julian, Dave, Zemed – with whom I traded favorite genre samplers.

This is but one example of the relationship between pop music and memory in my life.  Nearly every prominent moment in my emotional development (and random unrelated moments that sometimes play like a montage of random images and memories in my head) are tied to a specific song.  Well, apparently it isn’t just me.

There’s now scientific evidence to back the association between music and memory recollection:

“What seems to happen is that a piece of familiar music serves as a soundtrack for a mental movie that starts playing in our head.” said Petr Janata, a cognitive neuroscientist at University of California, Davis. “It calls back memories of a particular person or place, and you might all of a sudden see that person’s face in your mind’s eye.

Scientists selected a group of individuals and played a random sampling of top pop songs from their youth.  By tracking which songs elicited a strong autobiographical memory recollection, they determined that on average, greater than 50% of the songs played provoked an emotional response.  The scientists used magnetic imaging to track brain behavior during music playback and discovered that songs that elicited memory correlated with an uptick in cerebral cortex activity.  It seems that the brain responds to tonal patterns and subconsciously associates them with the environment in which they are experienced.  It would be interesting to know whether these are formed solely on the first listen, or if there is an emotional context that can embed this structural memory in the brain.

Though the purpose of the research is to support the theory that giving iPods to Alzheimers patients may succeed in eliciting some memory return (even if short-term), I couldn’t help but reflect on its relevance to my own life.  I don’t know about you, but after reading about these studies, it is safe to say that music will remain an important component of my daily routine, if only to peg additional life experiences to songs that can one day summon the distant past.

Fun activity: What are the songs that you associate most distinctly with personal memory?



  1. True story: one of the songs that immediately comes to mind when thinking of songs that bring back memories is Hootie and the Blowfish – Time. For some reason, it reminds me of riding in my Grandpa’s truck on the highway in Illinois. I’m not sure how I would have talked him into listening to that, but memory doesn’t lie, right?

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