begin the beguine: of music and memory

Music has incredible power over the human psyche, and in particular over memory.  While we’ve now begun to uncover the underlying scientific principles linking music to memory, the phenomenon is something that songwriters and lyricists have known for years.  Cole Porter’s classic “Begin the Beguine” explicitly addresses the strength of this connection; throughout the song, the singer recalls that, when the band starts to play music he associates with a former lover,

it brings back the sound
of music so tender
it brings back a night
of tropical splendor
it brings back a memory of green

and that, every time the tune plays, he can’t help but re-live the precious moments spent with the lady he’s lost—even though he tries his best to forget her.

The experience sounds familiar to many of us.  When I hear old Clapton ballads, for example, I recall a very particular dance, memories refreshed like a series of old photographs, every detail perfectly catalogued, right down to the curls in my hair and the color of his vest (it was blue).  When I go for a run on a warm, blue-skied afternoon and “Sweet Child O’ Mine” pops up on my workout playlist, the song calls to mind every outdoor barbecue, every trip to the beach, every open-windowed drive on hot pavement, every sunny day when that song might have played, and I inevitably find myself grinning, glorying in the beautiful weather and the sound of summer.  How can music do this for us?  How is it that even a few seconds of a tune, an echo on the radio, can evoke such powerful memories?

The study of music and memory is still relatively young, but what we know thus far is that part of the strength of music as a stimulus or memory trigger seems to be linked to emotion.  In the memory field, strong emotions are generally thought to enhance memory formation, as well as memory recall.  This concept makes intuitive sense; isn’t it easier to recall exactly how you felt when you had your first kiss, and what you smelled, and saw, and heard, than it is to recall how you felt when you ate that (presumably emotionally neutral) ham sandwich the other day?  The effect of emotion on memory formation makes evolutionary sense, too: intense emotional arousal (e.g., fear) would strengthen memories concerning, say, a close encounter with a predator—an important experience for our ancestors to remember (and hopefully avoid in the future)!

This sort of enhancement is mediated in part by a brain structure known as the amygdala.  The amygdala makes bi-directional connections to many other parts of the brain, allowing it to communicate with (among other regions) the hippocampus (responsible for memory formation), the pre-frontal cortex (associated with mood and other complex processes) and the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis (a network that can stimulate the production of hormones that may modulate memory formation and consolidation).  About ten years ago, a study found that some of these same brain regions can be activated by music!  Specifically, amygdala activation was associated with music that produced the intense feeling of “chills.”  Various studies since that time have implicated other components of the limbic (emotion) circuitry in the brain’s response to music, strengthening the apparent connection between what we hear and what we feel.  Music has also been shown to enhance our emotional responses to visual stimuli.  Imagine Mufasa’s death without the music.  Imagine chase scenes in the Bourne movies without the frenzied strings.  Considerably less memorable, right?

What’s especially interesting is that music has been linked to the activation of other brain structures, including the nucleus accumbens.  Remember the nucleus accumbens?  It’s associated with feelings of pleasure, fun, and reward—which, among other reasons, make this brain region integral to addiction behaviors.  Still, the activation of reward circuitry by music has a number of interesting implications.  Among the most clinically salient, however, are these:

Could we use music to help address mood disorders, or anxiety disorders?

Could we use music to modulate our perception of emotional experiences?

Given the link between music and memory—could we use music to promote memory formation and recall in patients with memory disorders (like Alzheimer’s disease)?

And in fact, these questions are all topics of current and intense research within the field of music perception.

So next time you turn on the radio, think about the songs you hear, and what they might mean to you and to your personal history.  Maybe you’ll hear an old love song as you’re driving home from work today; maybe it makes you want to cry.  Or laugh.  Or feel and remember any of a thousand different things, thrusting you headlong into any of a thousand different moments, each distinct and based upon your own experience—consider it an autobiography of a sort, your life and mine, called to mind, refreshed, re-lived in a series of chords.

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Posted on March 12, 2012, in Emotion, Memory, Music. Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

  1. It’s strange that many musical attributes like consonance (harmony or pleasant sounds) and dissonance (unpleasant, disharmonious) can impact the emotional perception of music (sad, happy, scary). And stranger yet that these attributes can be perceived similarly across cultures. Is there some evolutionary reason for this relationship between music type and emotional state? Could this reason be rooted in the earliest forms of vocal communication?

    It is interesting to think that another application of music therapy could be to enhance communication abilities in people with Autism Spectrum Disorders, or in social anxiety disorders.

    The field of auditory neuroscience is rapidly growing, and already there are songs to help us remember the alphabet and the periodic table. I hope to see more research on music therapies in the future!

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