The powerful connection between music and memories

Saoirse gives us examples of how music can help us in different ways

Written by Saoirse Gleeson


Music is a sensory gift that allows listeners to be taken back in time to a moment so minute, they had forgotten it was even a memory, while allowing the artist to express their most intimate feelings and memories on a platform shared and appreciated by many. You could be driving in your car at 25, hear ‘A Thousand Miles’ by Vanessa Carlton on the radio and be taken back to the moment you sat on your bedroom floor at 13 crying over your day old ‘relationship’.

You can hear the first few notes of an old school hymn and begin to remember the glare of your old primary school teacher, telling you to stand up straight and smile while singing in assembly. Music has the power to convey feelings in people that they have not felt in years, and take them to places they thought they’d never revisit.

Stephanie Rainey

Cork-born singer-songwriter Stephanie Rainey acknowledges the power of music in terms of its gift of time travel. She credits music as an emotional outlet which brings boxed away memories and feelings to the surface:

“In my opinion, music affects memory in the strangest way. It’s like a language or a smell. You hear a song and it can snap you right back to a time, an experience, a person and it can draw out feelings and emotions as if it’s happening right now.

I cry all the time listening to certain songs because they just remind me of something. What an amazing power.”

Stephanie’s single ‘Please Don’t Go’ was written as a tribute to her nephew who tragically passed away. It tells the story of loss and heartbreak, a feeling that almost everyone can relate to. The images created through the melody ‘Please Don’t Go’ hold feelings of nostalgia and reminiscence deeply associated with saddened memories.

“To this day when I sing some of my songs live – particularly ‘Please Don’t Go’ – I often get choked up. It brings me back to a moment and I feel similar energy from people in the room. That is all caused by memory. The memory of someone you’ve lost. That’s what music does and that’s why I love it so much.”

Jack Lukeman

Irish singer-songwriter Jack Lukeman, better known as Jack L, views music as a memory tool. He recognises the power of music to re-jog memory in a way unlike any other, and the capability of particular songs to leave long-lasting imprints on the human brain.

Jack said, “on a practical level, as regards to remembering songs or lyrics, it amazes me that I can sing a song I haven’t sung in years from memory in a moment. I have hundreds of songs in my head. I think melody helps to remember things.”

Often, we find ourselves humming fluently the lyrics to the likes of the 1999 hit ‘Mambo No.5’, yet struggle to recall that one pivotal definition we’d studied for hours the night before our end of year exam. It would make you wonder whether Hannah Montana had it all figured out in her 2007 episode where she scripted the anatomy of the human body into a simple, yet effective melody, ‘The Bone Dance’.

Maria Borck

Music therapist and scholar, Maria Borck, spoke of a moment during her practice whereby music enabled a lady suffering from dementia to recall on her memory for a short, yet significant moment.

“There was a lady in the group who was normally confused due to her dementia. I had a group, where this lady started to sing a song that she knew. I didn’t have that song in the list, but I followed her and accompanied her with the guitar while the rest of the ladies joined in with musical instruments.

After we finished the song and the group was asked questions, and this woman, who was having difficulty vocalizing and communicating verbally, sang the song from the beginning until the end. She started sharing memories about her life when she was a young adult, her family, where she was from, and other memories that we thought were lost because of her memory loss. While her language wasn’t clear, there was a moment of radiance where she could express herself, share her experiences of who she was, bringing back a sense of belonging”

Maria explained the science behind memory and music, and why we tend to remember the words of a song from 10 years ago and be brought back to the exact moment our brains associate with that melody.

“It has been found that our brain is more likely to focus on events or stimuli with emotional significance. Sensory information brings attention back to events that had emotional importance in our lives. Like when we taste a sweet which takes us to the first time you tasted it, where you perceive a smell which reminds you of the day you went shopping with your best friend, and such. Music is a very strong tool to induce emotions and therefore, to evoke memories.

Listening to a song is not a lonely action. When you listen to a song while being in a place where you can find peace like a forest or a beach, you are saving that moment in your memory as a whole. You are saving the blue sky, with the sea, the comfortable temperature, the feeling of wellness. If this moment is accompanied by a specific situation or person that makes your emotion bigger, the memory and the relation of it to the music will be bigger.”

The beauty of music

Music can be used as background noise to lighten an awkward conversation, while simultaneously be used in a dementia ward to bring back momentary colour to a darkened mind. We could view music as simply entertainment. However, by doing this, we are eliminating the possibility of a medical revolution. The melody of a song initially re-jogs our memory, while the lyrics allow us to relate to the song and brings meaning. People use music for different reasons, some because they love to play music and others because they enjoy listening to it. Whatever the reasons we have for listening to music, its seldom there’s an occasion where a song doesn’t hold some memory connotation.

Music as a medium of memory can be used by the artists to express their memories, by the listener to recall their memories and by science to bring back a memory. Music isn’t simply a mixture of pleasing beats, tones, sounds and lyrics mashed together to satisfy the listener. It’s a gateway for individuals to time travel back to a moment long passed.

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