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Music on the brain – the RSM Brain Series

Last week Professor Catherine Loveday delivered a lecture at the Royal Society of Medicine’s 2018 Brain Series lecture to a packed auditorium of doctors and academics. Loveday is a professor of psychology at the University of Westminster and also an amateur musician who performs regularly. She is passionate about neurosciences and is regularly invited to speak publicly on these topics, as well as being a regular on BBC Radio 4’s All in the Mind.

Much of her research and clinical work is focused on the neuropsychology of autobiographical memory loss and she has worked for many years with people who have different forms of memory loss. She also has a long-term fascination with music in the brain and has carried out a number of studies looking at the cognitive and neuronal aspects of music processing. Recently, she has brought these two areas of research together and she is now investigating how memories of music are central to our sense of self, imagination, emotional state and social functioning.

Professor Loveday said, “Autobiographical memory plays a profound part in our sense of self, the way we view our future and the relationships we have with others. It is the social glue that binds us and allows us to set goals and make decisions about the future and enables us to shape the future. As a musician and memory researcher, for years I have been fascinated by the powerful way that music and songs attach themselves to important events, people and places throughout our lives.’ Even when memories don’t always fully rise into consciousness, a familiar tune can still take you back to when you first heard it and connect you to the emotions you were feeling at the time.

Even when memories don’t always fully rise into consciousness, a familiar tune can still take you back to when you first heard it and connect you to the emotions you were feeling at the time.

As a psychologist, Loveday couldn’t help noticing a pattern in the songs and music her friends chose when asked for their favourite music. All of them selected pop songs from their teenage years, or twenties. People often chose music that reminded them of a particular person, or special event and time of their lives. She noticed that her friends were quicker to recognise songs from the earlier part of their lives, than at any other time. This strong effect didn’t just apply to the music they heard during their formative years, but also for the books they read, films they saw and celebrities they had crushes on.

It isn’t just middle aged people who have a better memory for music they heard when they were younger. Research showed that older people in their 70s, 80s and even 90s also had a better memory for tunes they first heard between the ages of 10 and 30. ’It seemed obvious to me that they were all being influenced by a well-established psychological phenomenon called the reminiscence bump. Most memory “bump” research so far has examined pop songs, partly as they are easy to date and far less is known about the extent the “bump” also happens with classical music.’

Why do these tunes and memories remain so intimately connected to us across our lives? During late adolescence and early adulthood our brains are at their sharpest and we experience many things, such as love affairs, passing exams, first holidays abroad and leaving home for the first time, so they are more likely to attach to our memories. This is the time of our lives when our sense of identity is being formed. When Loveday asked her friends to choose their favourite songs they chose tunes they associated with memorable periods in the early parts of their lives. One possible explanation for the intimate power of early musical is that people tend to have the time to listen to more music when they are young, with endless school summer holidays, or on memorable occasions such as weddings and funerals. Interestingly music heard during sad occasions, such as funerals seems to stick in people’s minds, just as readily as music heard during happy occasions.

Intriguingly there seems to a “cascading reminiscence bump” as revealed by the research of music psychologist Carol Krumhansl who noticed that young people could frequently recall their parents’ and grandparents favourite music and songs, such as the Beatles, Rolling Stones and David Bowie. So if you are now in your 40s and 50s you are likely to recognise 1960s and 1980s songs which presents your ‘bump’ and your parents’ during their swinging sixties youthful years.

Loveday said, ‘People who develop amnesia and other illnesses which affect the brain may lose much of their musical memory. One woman, Claire lost much of her memory after she had recovered from encephalitis. When asked for her favourite songs and music she chose nursery rhymes and folk tunes as most of her adolescent autobiographical memories had disappeared. What we see in typical amnesia contrasts with what we see in Alzheimer’s Disease where the musical memories are very well preserved.’

Rebecca Wallersteiner attended The brain series at the Royal Society of Medicine, December 2018

Rebecca Wallersteiner
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