The Power of Music for Reconnecting Us With Our Past
New research indicates music is a better autobiographical memory cue than food.
Posted February 13, 2023 | Reviewed by Lybi Ma
- In a recent study, we compared music and food as cues for autobiographical memories in everyday life.
- Music evoked more memories than food, which were retrieved more spontaneously.
- Music also evoked more personally significant memories than food.
Many people intuitively believe music is a powerful cue for autobiographical memories of events from our pasts. Music is increasingly used as a tool for helping people with dementia to reconnect with their past. Favorite songs can also serve as a meaningful way to structure discussions about one’s life story, as evidenced in the long-running BBC radio show Desert Island Discs.
Despite these practical uses, scientific research in this domain has been limited in scope. Most studies of music-evoked autobiographical memories to date have used researcher-selected excerpts of music, typically chart-topping pop music. In addition, such data is predominantly collected in scientific laboratories or online experiments, rather than in the everyday contexts in which we normally encounter music. This means we have limited information about how the music we actually listen to in real-life settings stimulates autobiographical recall.
In a study published just this week (Jakubowski et al., 2023), my colleagues and I sought to correct this imbalance. We collected data from 78 participants during their everyday lives. Over the course of four days, they were asked to take note of every time a piece of music triggered an autobiographical memory in a paper diary.
We also compared these music-evoked autobiographical memories to food-evoked autobiographical memories, which were recorded in an analogous way over another four-day period. In addition, we compared groups of young (ages 18-34) and older (ages 60-77) adults in both these tasks.
We found that music evoked significantly more autobiographical memories than food in both age groups. Music also triggered more involuntary memories: memories that came to mind spontaneously without deliberate effort. This is notable evidence for the “power of music,” given the popular belief that smells and tastes are particularly effective cues for involuntary memories, as in Marcel Proust’s madeleine anecdote in In Search of Lost Time.
In addition, music-evoked memories were consistently rated as more important to one’s life story than food-evoked memories. This suggests music is more tightly bound to our sense of identity than food. Indeed, previous research has shown that music preferences are linked to important aspects of ourselves such as our personalities, political preferences, and cognitive styles.
Several similarities were also found between music- and food-evoked memories. Both memory types elicited primarily positive emotions, and the two memory types did not differ in ratings of how vivid or how old the memory was.
Overall, older adults did not differ from young adults in the number of autobiographical memories recalled. They also recalled a similar proportion of involuntary memories to young adults. These results contrast with typical laboratory studies, which have often shown a significant age-related decline in deliberate memory recall. However, our findings align with some previous studies of involuntary memory in everyday life (Berntsen et al., 2015; Warden et al., 2019), suggesting that laboratory studies overestimate the negative impacts of aging on memory compared with these more naturalistic tasks.
The data for this study were collected in the US and the UK. We hope in the future to expand the global reach of this work, to explore whether cultures that utilize music and food in different ways might show different patterns of results.
Berntsen, D., Rubin, D. C., & Salgado, S. (2015). The frequency of involuntary autobiographical memories and future thoughts in relation to daydreaming, emotional distress, and age. Consciousness and Cognition, 36, 352–372. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.concog.2015.07.007
Jakubowski, K., Belfi, A. M., Kvavilashvili, L., Ely, A., Gill, M., & Herbert, G. (2023). Comparing music- and food-evoked autobiographical memories in young and older adults: A diary study. British Journal of Psychology. https://doi.org/10.1111/bjop.12639
Warden, E. A., Plimpton, B., & Kvavilashvili, L. (2019). Absence of age effects on spontaneous past and future thinking in daily life. Psychological Research, 83(4), 727–746. https://doi.org/10.1007/s00426-018-1103-7