The Power of Music

People have long known that music can trigger powerful memories, but now a brain-scan study has revealed where exactly this happens in our brains. Cognitive neuroscientist at the University of California Petr Janata has recently conducted studies supporting this idea. Janata works under the Davis School of Medicine, one of the most prestigious neurological schools in the country.

The part of the brain known as the medial pre-frontal cortex sits just behind the forehead.

“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.” said Janata.

“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 began to support the relation between music and memory when he saw that this part of the brain actively tracked chord and key changes. He had also seen studies which showed the same region lighting up in response to self-reflection and recall of autobiographical details, and so he decided to examine the possible music-memory link by recruiting some of his students.

They went under a brain scanner and listened to 30 different songs randomly. These songs came from the Billboard “Top 100” music charts from years when the students were kids (roughly 8-18 years of age). They signaled researchers when a certain 30-second music sample triggered any autobiographical memory, as opposed to just being a familiar or unfamiliar song.

“This is the first study using music to look at [the neural correlates of] autobiographical memory,” Janata told LiveScience.

Janata saw that tunes linked to the strongest self-reported memories triggered the most vivid and emotion-filled responses – findings corroborated by the brain scan showing spikes in mental activity within the specific part of the brain he wanted to focus on.

The brain region responded quickly to music signature and timescale, but also reacted overall when a tune was autobiographically relevant. Basically, music tracking activity in the brain was stronger during more powerful autobiographical memories.

This latest research could explain why even Alzheimer’s patients who endure increasing memory loss can still recall songs from their distant past.

“What’s striking is that the prefrontal cortex is among the last [brain regions] to atrophy…” 

He pointed to behavioral observations of Alzheimer’s patients singing along or brightening up when familiar songs came on.

**To see the text better, click on the graph. The types of music include: Haydn, Metallica and White Noise. The blue bars indicate memories for true items, while the yellow bars show memories for false items.

Janata’s research merely tried to establish a neuroscience basis for why music can activate memory. He voiced the hope that his and other studies could encourage practices such as giving iPods to Alzheimer’s patients – perhaps providing real-life testament to the power of music.

“It’s not going to reverse the disease,” Janata said. “But if you can make quality of life better, why not?”

It really is amazing when you think about how and why certain things can help our memory. There is so many aspects of memory that are unknown to us, rather philosophies or hypotheses about how it works. The fact that something as simple as music, instead of any sort of medical therapy or treatment is fascinating. Like Janata said, it may not cure disease, but it will improve quality of life. In the long run, that’s all that matters. Music is manipulated to become a medicine to the mind. This contrasts the world of medicine, how we are racing to find the most complex and newest medicines, vaccines. We should take a step back, and realize there’s more (or less) to medicine than pharmaecuticals and drugs. Memory, as complex as it is, can be treated with natural phenomena, like music.


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  1. So listening to Metallica can help Alzheimer patients? I can imagine rest homes with heavy metal playing out of speakers…! I do think that music can trigger powerful memories. When I hear “Good Morning, Starshine”, I immediately think of my father in a way that no other memory can produce…he loved that song.
    This is a great entry!

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