FEATURE: Songs to Remember Me By: The Amazing Way Music Unlocks Memories and Can Tackle Cognitive Issues




Songs to Remember Me By


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The Amazing Way Music Unlocks Memories and Can Tackle Cognitive Issues


I have been thinking a lot about memory and why we all…


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cast our minds back to certain times. Maybe we intuitively and unconsciously lock certain events in a different compartment of the brain to be recalled when we need cheering or calming. We edit a lot of memories and try and retain as many of the good ones as possible. I have covered this topic before and examined how music can help those with memory issues or degenerative cognitive impairment. Drugs can help with patients and work wonders but there is something therapeutic about music and how it can heal. I have heard about people with diseases like Alzheimer’s and M.S. who have recalled lost memories because of music. Many sufferers might not know their loved ones’ names but, when a song from their past is played; their eyes are widened and it uncovers so many other memories. This article, written in 2013, reacted to a study regarding the link between music and memories:

A series of recent studies have found that listening to music engages broad neural networks in the brain, including brain regions responsible for motor actions, emotions, and creativity.

In the first study of its kind, Amee Baird and Séverine Samson, from University of Newcastle in Australia, used popular music to help severely brain-injured patients recall personal memories. Their pioneering research was published on December 10, 2013 in the journal Neuropsychological Rehabilitation…


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Although their study only involved a small number of participants, it is the first to examine ‘music-evoked autobiographical memories’ (MEAMs) in patients with acquired brain injuries (ABIs), rather than those who are healthy or suffer from Alzheimer’s disease.

In their study, Baird and Samson played snippets from "Billboard Hot 100" number-one songs in a random order to people with ABI. The songs—taken from the whole of the patient’s lifespan from age five—were also played to control subjects with no brain injury. All participants were asked to record how familiar they were with a given song, whether they liked it, and what memories the song evoked.

Interestingly, the highest number of MEAMs in the whole group was recorded by one of the ABI patients. In all those studied, the majority of MEAMs were of a person, people or a life period, and were typically positive. Songs that evoked a memory were noted as being more familiar and more well liked than songs that did not trigger a MEAM. This is common sense”.

I think we can all get scared and unsure and there are times when we need some positivity or assurance we are on the right path. Maybe we consciously do it but many of us listen to music we grew up around because we want to be reminded of safer and less challenging times.


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I am not saying we all get nostalgic but we can listen to a song that is common to many and evoke personal and unique memories. I am not sure why it is but music is held in special reserve and keeps safe snippets of our past. Maybe we inadvertently attach music to memories (or vice versa) and they are in our brain for life. If a particular song is hated or ignored by someone else; to someone like me, they can be precious because they soundtracked a formative or special time. Why do we classify music in a way that we do not with anything else? Why do we hold some songs in the brain and others can slip on by? This story sheds some light:

The hippocampus and the frontal cortex are two large areas in the brain associated with memory and they take in a great deal of information every minute. Retrieving it is not always easy. It doesn’t simply come when you ask it to. Music helps because it provides a rhythm and rhyme and sometimes alliteration which helps to unlock that information with cues. It is the structure of the song that helps us to remember it, as well as the melody and the images the words provoke.

The technique remains important today. Neuroscientists have analysed the brain mechanisms related to memory, finding that words set to music are the easiest to remember. Just think of one of the first songs you could well have sung: “A,B,C,D,E,F,G, come along and sing with me.” Text learnt to music is better remembered when it is heard as a song rather than speech. Try and remember anything set to a tune and your powers of recall will be stronger: “Now I’ve sung my ABC”.

I have distinct memories of music that are amazing to recall. I cannot remember things I did today and the last person I spoke with but I can project clear images of my childhood when I hear a song played. The Bangles’ Eternal Flame takes me back to one of my first homes and watching the song’s music video through the bannisters. Soundgarden’s Black Hole Sun takes me to a Greek island as a child; watching the video on MTV as I was sitting with my family outside a beach-side bar. I listen to The Shamen’s Ebeneezer Goode and can recall a middle-school memory where a classmate played the song on a tape recorder – delighting the class – and I cast my mind back to university when I listen to other songs. It is amazing to think I can hear Tears for Fears’ Everybody Wants to Rule the World and that is my first memory of life – a young child hearing it coming from the kitchen; the odd sensation of being aware of music for the very first time. I wanted to re-explore the subject because these memories and this beguiling music-memory romance is one we all share. It is amazing how we can hear songs from particular times and recall them for decades whilst others are lost. I am intrigued why a song such as Rhythm Is a Dancer takes me back to a family holiday at Butlins and sitting in an activity class with other kids – my parents given time to escape and have some free relaxation.

There would have been other songs played in those classes/groups and I would have heard other songs that holiday – this one song is associated with that time and is the official soundtrack. Why does the brain choose to select that song?! The BBC article I have just quoted explains why certain tones and genres stick:

Notably, memories stimulated by music often come from particular times in our lives. Classic hits take us back to our teenage years and our twenties, much more than songs of later years. Psychologists have called it the ‘reminiscence bump’. It may work this way because this is an especially important and exciting time in our lives, when we are experience things for the first time and when we become independent. Everything is new and meaningful. Later, life becomes a bit of a blur. Music evokes emotion, but the sound and feeling of it, while important ,don’t necessary define your feelings. A sad song could be associated with a happy time, a happy one with a sad one”.

Maybe there is something indiscriminate with the selection process but I’d like to think, on some level, our childhood is about formulating the music we will follow as an adult and shaping us as consumers. We cannot retain all music but we are picking as we go along and those precious memories are the way we get music to stick. Maybe it is not so much about music being stored in the brain so we can recall it years down the line; perhaps we retain certain music as we grow up for different reasons. It is so interesting to dig deep and learn about that process.


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I am always amazed how I can recall these memories and, with it, there are smells, sights and quotes. I have problems with memory but can hear a song I remembered from school days and my classmates are there (one who is actually dead is in that memory!) and the smell of paint in the class; the weather outside and what our uniforms looked like. Some of these memories might be unreliable – the weather and why that song was played – but I can picture faces and how I felt back then – maybe twenty-five years or more! There is a science and process our brain goes through with regards retention and musical memory. The article I previously quoted looks at a revolutionary 2011 study:

In a 2011 study, Finnish researchers used a groundbreaking method that allowed them to study how the brain processes different aspects of music, such as rhythm, tonality and timbre (sound color) in a realistic listening situation. Their study was published in the journal NeuroImage.

Limbic areas of the brain, known to be associated with emotions, were also found to be involved in rhythm and tonality processing. Processing of timbre was associated with activations in the so-called default mode network, which is assumed to be associated with mindwandering and creativity.

"Our results show for the first time how different musical features activate emotional, motor and creative areas of the brain," concluded Professor Petri Toiviainen from the University of Jyväskylä. "We believe that our method provides more reliable knowledge about music processing in the brain than the more conventional methods".


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The reason I adore the 1990s and look back at the decade with fondness is not a hopeless nostalgia trip but because I have so many happy memories from them – most of them scored by music! You might say that is one of the same but I refute that. I will end this article with a memory tape list I included in the last related article: all of the songs hold a special memory for me and, whilst you may hate some/most; each has been included in that playlist for a good reason. You can match the article with the songs and see if you can think of your own memory playlist! Whilst it is true we tend to retain musical memories at a younger age – perhaps fewer songs from adulthood remain – I feel it is an ongoing process. Our memories are sharper as our brains develop so there is a natural period when we will stop retaining so prolifically. Also; as we discover music and have that curiosity; more of our memories will be tied to music. I can bring to mind memories from a few years ago revolving around music but most stored seem to go from the year 2000 back to my early childhood. One might say music was better before that year so it is only natural I would hold them dear. That raises another theory: do we recall certain songs because of their quality or is it to do with the memory itself?! Are we remembering tracks because they are so good and we had never heard anything like it or are the memories they are associated with what we remember – the music is purely circumstantial or plays a minor role?! In any case; music is a potent and powerful thing that can help us keep memories safe and brought to mind at the most random moments.

There are those who suffer from neurological disorders or brain injuries who might have poor short-term memory recall. It is devastating to see someone suffer from memory issues and literally forget their own names! I have, ironically, explored this before but I am drawn to music and how it can help those with memory/neurological illnesses. The fact I am spending time recalling fond musical visions means, in some way, I am curious as to why certain times in my life have been retained – others have been lost and it seems like there is some sort of gating mechanism. Going back to the BBC piece and they investigate why certain songs are retained and how these memories can aid in recovery after brain injuries:

Cretien van Campen, author of The Proust Effect: The Senses as Doorways to Lost Memories researches the ways different senses act like the madeleine for the French author Marcel Proust in In Search of Lost Time when a bite of the sweet cake takes him back to his childhood with all its smells, colours and feelings. Much of Campen’s work studies the brain, but he makes an important observation about what happens outside of our heads. “Smell differs in that it is a personal memory, whereas there is something very social in our experience of music,” he points out. “Music memories are often shared with peer.”…


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“…We listen, together. At a party, it is something that we hear whilst dancing or chatting to a friend. We go to concerts or gigs with one another. And it is because music is there as part of lives spent with others – often significant others – that helps make it especially meaningful. Indeed it is often played at or composed for significant occasions, like funerals or weddings, where we witness major life events.

People who have suffered traumatic brain injuries will often have problems with memory. Music can help bring back some of those special moments of their lives that they have forgotten. Those suffering from dementia can trigger vivid memories by listening to music they heard when they were young. Campen also highlights its uses for those with depression. It can assist people to recall difficult parts of their lives that were not necessarily as bad as they had thought. “People who are depressed often feel as if there is a blanket over their lives”. Hearing music, and remembering various experiences, “can help them remember the more complex experiences.” It’s not that these are always positive, he notes, “but they may be more rounded.” Music cannot cure, but perhaps it can help heal”.

Memories and stored reminders are incredibly important when it comes to those whose memories might be otherwise skewed. Thing about someone who suffers from a brain injury or disorder and they might not remember where they came from and who they are.

Play them a song through headphones from their past – whether Glory Box by Portishead or The Beatles’ Taxman – and that can unlock myriad visions, colours and visions. Without verbal prompt or any medication; a patient can unlock this lost world and recall memories in perfect detail. I know it is a short-term release and it only provides a few memories but we have not harnessed how music can help go further – can therapy with music help that process and stimulate the brain? Can music in general advance memory recovery and provide stimulus? This article talks about music therapy and why music is a powerful tool:

Music taps into our emotions and creates a non-threatening, non-invasive atmosphere where individuals are provided an outlet to be creative, have opportunities for control over their environment, be social, and express their emotions. As a result, children and adults who suffer from anxiety and mood disorders may benefit from music therapy to improve coping skills, reduce anxiety, improve self-regulation, self-esteem, self-awareness, and increase their verbal and non-verbal expression of feelings.

Music provides a structured beginning, middle, and end that is appeasing to our brains! It provides predictable and organized outcomes through steady rhythm, melodic phrases, and form. Structure and familiarity through music can be very soothing and coordinating for the brain. Because of this structure, music therapy interventions can be beneficial for individuals with ADHD and Autism Spectrum Disorder by providing music to encourage relaxation, promote self-regulation, reduce hyperactivity, adjust to changes and transitions, and improve attention”.

One of the reasons I am a music journalist and want to pursue music to its nth degree is because of the way it sticks in my mind and how I can recall certain songs. These natural memories have been carried with me all this time and that sheer power is hard to describe. I can tell you in a thousand words why T. Rex’s Hot Love is so meaningful to me but it might not resonate with anyone else. Our brain chooses to remember particular songs and I am always going to be curious why that is and how why particular songs remain and others do not. Whilst we can recall memories and songs from our past; I wonder whether, in people whose memories are distorted and fractured; can music and therapy help uncover many more lost memories and provide nourishment to the brain in ways we cannot comprehend? Music is a wonderful and evolving artform that can assist with depression, anxiety and all manner of situations. Music can help us through grief and heartache and it can lift the mood in a way nothing can. Whilst it is wonderful we can retain music from years back and recall these childhood times; I am always looking forward as to how those who suffer appalling neurological issues can benefit from music. The memory is a wonderful and complex instrument that can be taken away from us and damaged; it can be blurry and unreliable or, on certain days, clear as a bell! Music is always there; feeding into corners and sinews that we did not know existed; storing away for future days and able to aid and elevate us when required. The mystery as to why we store certain songs and times is always of interest to me but, when thinking of those whose minds and memories are slipping; it is clear that music, future, present and past has a…

HUGE role to play.