Saturday, November 13, 2010

Music-Memory Connection Found in Brain

Image: Brain areas showing music tonality-tracking behavior. Different colors represent the number of subjects who showed significant tracking behavior. Credit: Cerebral Cortex/Janata

Source: Health, Jeremy Hsu, 24 February 2009

Retrieved from:

People have long known that music can trigger powerful recollections, but now a brain-scan study has revealed where this happens in our noggins.The part of the brain known as the medial pre-frontal cortex sits just behind the forehead, acting like recent Oscar host Hugh Jackman singing and dancing down Hollywood's memory lane. Janata began suspecting the medial pre-frontal cortex as a music-processing and music-memories region when he saw that part of the brain actively tracking chord and key changes in music. 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 13 UC-Davis students.Test subjects went under an fMRI brain scanner and listened to 30 different songs randomly chosen from the Billboard "Top 100" music charts from years when the subjects would have been 8 to 18 years old. They signaled researchers when a certain 30-second music sample triggered any autobiographical memory, as opposed to just being a familiar or unfamiliar song.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 medial prefrontal cortex. "What's striking is that the prefrontal cortex is among the last [brain regions] to atrophy," Janata noted. He pointed to behavioral observations of Alzheimer's patients singing along or brightening up when familiar songs came on.This latest research could explain why even Alzheimer's patients who endure increasing memory loss can still recall songs from their distant past.

This study seemed very interesting to me, not only because of its topic, but also in terms of its simplicity. The investigator chose some most popular songs, and asked participants to listen to 30 s of each of these songs while they were under fMRI, and signal when they find a song reminded them some memory. After the MRI participants wrote some details about the memory related to those songs. Janata found out that, when the soundtrack is related to a memory, the brain not only recognizes the key signature and timescale very quickly, but also with more powerful autobiographical memories, the brain music tacking activity was much stronger.


Michael Kolk said...

This was an interesting post. I've read before that we remember things more clearly and for longer if there is an emotional attachment to the event. I've even heard this applied to memorizing music better - that if one can emotionally relate to the piece they are playing they will remember it better during performance. So it makes sense that music that arouses our emotions would be more clearly imprinted on our memory and trigger autobiographical memories at the same time.

Grace Ha said...

It is fascinating that the place for music memory is the last brain region to atrophy. To know that I am creating everlasting memories for my students as a music teacher, is very motivating and inspiring but at the same time I feel more responsiblibility about what I am teaching. When I hear music that I learned in elementary school, I do not remember much about what the teacher taught, but I remember the classroom atmosphere, friends, the teacher,or the weather on the day that we sang the song. This post emphasized the importance of the context that the music was introduced, which is a huge implication for music educators.