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Music, Memory and Emotion

Brain imaging confirms the power of music to bring back memories

Man playing trumpetWe all know the feeling: a golden oldie comes on the radio and suddenly we're transported back to a memorable high school dance, or to that perfect afternoon on the beach with friends. But what is it about music that can evoke such vivid memories?

By mapping the brain activity of a group of subjects while they listened to music, a researcher at the University of California, Davis, now thinks he has the answer: the region of the brain where memories of our past are stored and retrieved also serves as a hub that links familiar music, memories and emotion.

The discovery may help to explain why music can elicit such strong responses from people with Alzheimer's disease, said the study's author, Petr Janata, associate professor of psychology at the UC Davis Center for Mind and Brain. The "hub" is located in the medial prefrontal cortex region, one of the last areas of the brain to atrophy over the course of the disease.

"What seems to happen is that a piece of familiar music serves as a soundtrack for a mental movie that starts playing in our head. It calls back memories of a particular person or place, and you might all of a sudden see that person's face in your mind's eye," Janata said. "Now we can see the association between those two things—the music and the memories."

Janata's latest study, "The Neural Architecture of Music-Evoked Autobiographical Memories," was published in a recent issue of the journal Cerebral Cortex. Some of his earlier work also documented that music serves as a potent trigger for retrieving memories.

Two experiments help solve the mystery

In order to learn more about the mechanism behind this phenomenon, Janata had subjects listen to excerpts of 30 different tunes through headphones while he recorded their brain activity with an MRI. To assure the best chance that they would associate at least some of the tunes with memories from their past, he chose songs randomly from "top 100" charts from years when each subject would have been 8 to 18 years old.

After each excerpt, subjects responded to questions about the tune, including whether it was associated with any particular incident, episode or memory. Immediately following the MRI session, they completed a survey about the content and vividness of the memories that each familiar tune had elicited.

The surveys revealed that tunes that were linked to the strongest, most important memories were the ones that evoked the most vivid and emotion-laden responses. And when he took a look at the brain images and compared them to these self-reported reactions, Janata discovered that the degree of importance of the memory corresponded to the amount of brain activity.

While this correlation confirmed Janata's hypothesis that this brain region links music and memory, it was another discovery that sealed his conclusion.

A lifelong music buff, Janata had earlier created a model for "mapping" the tones of a piece of music as it moves from chord to chord and into and out of major and minor keys. By making tonal maps of each musical excerpt and comparing them to their corresponding brain scans, he discovered that the brain was tracking these tonal progressions in the same region as it was experiencing the memories. And in this case, too, the stronger the autobiographical memory, the greater the "tracking" activity.

"What's cool about this is that one of the main parts of the brain that's tracking the music is the same part of the brain that's responding overall to how autobiographically important the music is," Janata said.

Because memory for autobiographically important music seems to be spared in people with Alzheimer's disease, Janata said, one of his long-term goals is to use this research to help develop music-based therapy for people with the memory loss. "Providing patients with MP3 players and customized playlists," he speculated, "could prove to be a quality-of-life improvement strategy that would be both effective and economical."

Source: University of California Davis School of Medicine and UC Davis Medical Center, Sacramento campus. The work was supported by a Templeton Advanced Research Program grant from the Metanexus Institute.

Learn More

"The Healing Power of Music" in the May 2009 issue of Caring Right at Home tells more about the therapeutic benefits of music.


Right at Home is a national organization dedicated to improving the quality of life for those we serve. We fulfill that mission through a dedicated network of locally owned, franchised providers of in-home care and assistance services.

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