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When Sound Evokes Memory

Science suggests music can bring back memories and my soul agrees

I recently heard a song off of the 1995 album Above by the short-lived but terrific "supergroup", Mad Season, (comprised of members from Pearl Jam, Alice in Chains, and Screaming Trees) and was immediately brought back to the Brooklyn, NY home I grew up in, laying on the couch nursing a torn ACL in my left knee awaiting surgery.

The minute I heard "Wake Up", the lead track off of Above, I instantly remembered everything about that time period. I can see the living room, the red drapes covering the windows facing the front of the house, the snack table set up next to me with various snacks, drinks, medications, music magazines, and the TV remote. I spent many days during this time, pre and post-knee surgery, listening to Above and King for a Day, Fool for a Lifetime by Faith No More, which was released a day before Above on March 13, 1995.

If you follow my writing you know that I often talk about the connection between music and science and how we as human beings react to music in a way we do not react to any other art form. Music has the ability to dig deeper than just about anything else.

I was recently turned onto a great article written by Dr. Kelly Jakubowski, Assistant Professor in Music Psychology at Durham University called, "Why Does Music Bring Back Memories" for Neuroscience News. I highly recommend giving it a read as it not only answers the question the title is asking, but it's full of data and research conducted by Dr. Jakubowski, colleagues, and other scientists.


As I continue to write SLACKER - 1991, Teen Spirit Angst, and the Generation It Created (Winter 2023, Inspired By You Books), memories from the late 80s through the entirety of the 90s have been flooding back at tsunami levels. The waves and crashes of these memories are more than welcome, especially in the year that I'll turn 50...I need all of the youthful thoughts and memories I can get!

Writing a book or not, I've always listened to music from days gone by and have revisited both of the albums I've already mentioned in this article countless times over. The feeling and emotional satisfaction I receive from these records is something I've been aware of for decades now. It's good to know that science, and people a lot smarter than me, are paying attention and educating us on why this happens.

An excerpt from the paper by Dr. Jakubowski:

"...the emotional nature of a piece of music is an important factor in how it serves as a memory cue.
We compared music with other emotional memory cues that had been rated by a large group of participants as conveying the same emotional expression as the music excerpts we used. This included comparing music with “emotional sounds”, such as nature and factory noises, and “emotional words”, such as “money” and “tornado”.
When compared with these emotionally matched cues, the music didn’t elicit any more memories than the words. But what we did find was that music evoked more consistently positive memories than other emotional sounds and words. This was especially the case for negative emotional stimuli. Specifically, sad and angry music evoked more positive memories than sad and angry sounds or words.
It seems then that music appears to have the ability to reconnect us with emotionally positive moments from our pasts."

None of that surprises me and I'm guessing some of you aren't surprised either. There is one part of the quote however that could surprise some folks. It's something that on the surface seems counterintuitive but I've actually researched it myself years ago so I've been a proponent of it for quite some time.

The quote I'm referring to is "specifically, sad and angry music evoked more positive memories than sad and angry sounds or words."

The alternative and grunge music coming out in the early and mid-90s, for the most part, focused on the darker, more introspective sides of life. Isolation, pain, addiction, depression, suicide, and loneliness were popular songwriting themes back then. This was arguably the first time that commercial music, being consumed daily by millions of people, had such somber messages while being so incredibly accepted and accessible. This music helped raise Gen X'ers the world over and we were somehow healed because of it.

I may not consider being immobile on my mother's couch with a torn-up knee as a "positive memory" but those days...those times, were chock full of some of the greatest days of my life. Sure there were speed bumps such as knee surgery, but when I hear Above or King for a Day, Fool for a Lifetime, I feel those positive times shoot through me and I'd expect that to continue for the rest of my life.

On a cold, rainy day such as the one I'm experiencing as I write this, put on some of your favorite songs, in particular, the sad ones, and enjoy your trip to happier times from your past. You'll have music to thank for the journey.


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