The Blueprint

Why do songs evoke memories?

Aidan Sullivan

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Have you ever heard a song that brings back memories from a specific time or place in your life? As soon as you hear the first few notes played, you are overcome with nostalgia and deep-seated happiness from that certain memory retained in your brain. But why does this happen? What causes these memories and emotions to be brought back to the surface?

On Dec. 10, 2013, Amee Baird and Séverine Samson published their research in the journal Neuropsychological Rehabilitation. Being pioneers of the first research in this field, Biard and Samson used popular music from the childhood of patients with brain injuries to help recall memories from their past.

In the study, Biard and Samson played songs from the Billboard Hot 100 from the same years the patients were 8 to 18 years old. The scientists would then ask each patient if they recognized the song, if the song brought back positive or negative memories, and what those memories were.

The results showed that the patients with brain injuries recognized an average of 17 of the 30 excerpts played, and of those 17 they recognized, 13 were strongly associated with a memory from their past.

Regarding memory callback evoked by music, cognitive neuroscientist at the University of California Petr Janata said, “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.”

Junior Henry Stein believes this evidence to be true. “Every time I hear ‘Suit and Tie’ by Justin Timberlake it reminds me of when Erik Bowes and I would sing it during class 6th grade year,” Stein said.