Music and Autobiographical Memory
Music can trigger powerful memories from one’s past. The affect of music on personal memory has been a popular movie theme ("High Fidelity," for example, and more recently "500 Days of Summer"). Songs that were popular in your youth will trigger memories and emotions when you hear them. With brain-imaging technology, scientists can show where this happens in our brains. Music-triggered memories begin in the medial pre-frontal cortex, a part of the brain which sits just behind our foreheads. It is responsible for tracking chord and key changes. It is also the part of the brain which, under fMRI scans, lights up in response to self-reflection prompts and recall of autobiographical details. Petr Janata, a cognitive neuroscientist at the University of California, Davis, recently concluded a study that illustrates how the medial pre-frontal cortex links familiar music, memories and emotion. He enlisted 13 UC-Davis students to listen to songs they might have heard in their youth and report if--and when--the song triggered a personal memory. The medial pre-frontal cortex responded quickly to music signatures and timescales, but also reacted overall when a tune was autobiographically relevant. Janata also noted that this is the last part of the brain to atrophy in Alzheimer’s patients, and that music triggers powerful, personal memories in these persons.
Musicians and Memory
A less known, but long suspected fact, is that musicians, or people who have had some form of musical training, have a better capacity to remember information. In a 2008 study, researchers Jakobson, Lewycky, Kilgour and Stoesz, found evidence that formal music instruction is associated with superior verbal and visual memory. Their study included 15 highly trained pianists and 21 individuals with little or no formal music training, with all participants being of the same general age and socio-economic status. The highly trained pianists performed better when recalling word lists and visual images than their non-musical counterparts. The difference might be in their strategies. Non-musicians tried to verbalize the images they saw, while non-musicians did not. In remembering word-lists, the researchers found that musicians (unlike the non-musicians) used a strategy called "chunking," or grouping words together based on relevancy and nearness in meaning. This might be a strategy acquired from musical practice; when they remember songs, musicians rely on the fact that the notes are related to each other and thus remember them in groups. They apply the same strategy to remembering words, but musicians are in fact no better than non-musicians at remembering random sequences of words, as they are not any better at remembering random sequences of notes.
Recent research on how music affects memory can have real-life applications in treating mental illness and in education. Dr. Janata hopes that his study will encourage practices such as giving iPods to Alzheimer's patients. Studies like those of Jakobson, Lewycky, Kilgour and Stoesz could work to change the way music education is viewed in today’s schools.