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Did you know there’s an incredibly strong link between music and memory? Researchers have been conducting studies for many years looking into the associations between music and cognition. Music can help patients with dementia or brain injuries recover lost memories, can serve as therapy, and can even bolster language skills.

The link between music and memory

Autobiographical memory is the memory system we have for our own personal memories. Memories about our life—events, episodes, facts we’ve learned—are all part of autobiographical memory. Music has been proven to trigger vivid autobiographical memories, stronger than memories we attempt to recall on our own. Have you ever listened to a song and it immediately takes you back to a certain time, place, or even feeling? That’s music evoking autobiographical memories!

A 2016 study compared the vividness of memories triggered by music and memories triggered by visual stimuli. Participants listened to songs and looked at pictures of famous faces and reported on their memories that were evoked. The music-evoked autobiographical memories (MEAMs) contained greater internal and perceptual details and were determined to be more vivid than the faces.

In recent years, music has been studied to determine its effects on people with memory loss. A 2014 study examined patients with severe acquired brain injuries (rather than cognition loss from dementia or Alzheimer’s). Patients listened to hit songs answered questions about their memories. The study found that music was more effective than verbal prompts at triggering autobiographical memories and that the MEAMs were notably well-preserved compared to non-musical memories.

Music training for memory

According to an article in the Washington Post, musical training (such as learning an instrument) can hone many different skills. Memory, spatial learning, literacy, and verbal intelligence have all been shown to greatly benefit from musical training. Trained musicians are better at processing speech in environments with a lot of background noise and at detecting pitch in music and spoken language. Research suggests that those with musical training are more efficient at processing language in general.

A study published in 2011 determined that music training is also highly beneficial to working memory: the short-term memory system that is responsible for temporarily storing information available for processing. Working memory is important for reasoning and decision making. The study, published in Neuropsychologia, found that musicians outranked non-musicians on memory tests. Researchers concluded that long-term music training is linked to a higher-functioning working memory.

Music as memory therapy

The nonprofit organization Music & Memory is taking the link between music and memory to new heights. Their mission is to bring music into the lives of the elderly or infirm and improve their quality of life. Through donated MP3 players, Music & Memory aims to help people with Alzheimer’s, dementia, and other cognitive challenges reconnect to the world via music.

Music has helped many people with dementia remember things from their past. They are able to connect with people more, and music encourages them to sing and speak with others. Check out this inspiring video of Henry, a man who spent a decade in near-silence before rediscovering music:

By: Elena McPhillips

References: PubMed, Washington Post, Music & Memory