Monday, November 12, 2012

Music and Memory

 Janata, P, (2010) Music, Memories, and The Brain, Petr Janata: Music and the Brain. [podcast] April 29, 2010.
Link: [Accessed: November 11th, 2012].

Music and Memory

This podcast is from the Library of Congress’ Music and The Brain series. It is an interview with Dr. Petr Janata, associate professor at the University of California at Davis and member of The Centre for The Mind and Brain. Dr. Janata is interested in how basic neural systems that underlie perception, attention, memory, action, and emotion interact in the context of natural behaviors, with an emphasis on music.

The subject of this podcast is Dr. Janata’s interest in and research on what he calls “music-evoked autobiographical memories.” Imagine driving down the highway in your pickup truck when you suddenly hear something familiar on the radio. Out of the speakers comes the classic rock song that was playing in the background while you proposed to your wife 20 years ago. You are instantly transported back in time; remembering the temperature outside, the smell of her perfume, the feeling of butterflies in the pit of your stomach. That is a music-evoked autobiographical memory.

Janata felt that music would be a great way to look at the brain structures associated with experiential memories, hoping to get some insight into the organizational hierarchy. For his research he used Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI), a procedure that measures brain activity by detecting associated changes in blood flow, as well as a questionnaire to gather data from his subjects.

He chose individuals with whom he knew he could elicit memories. While they were in the fMRI scanner he played them multiple 30-second musical excerpts. The examples included songs familiar to the subjects and numerous other random selections. After each musical excerpt the subjects were asked to rate the familiarity of the song, what memories were evoked, how pleasing the song/memory was, etc.

Janata and his team used those subjective responses to set up a statistical model to analyze the data, to figure out which regions of the brain changed depending on the level of emotion felt and/or the strength of the memory. Janata also mentions that he can pair this data with previous research in the movements of major/minor tonalities – enabling him to actually track the regions in the brain that are following things such as tonal keys, melodies, and chord progressions. He is essentially watching the brain listen. 


I am very interested in the idea of music-evoked autobiographical memories, and it is certainly something that I experience myself. We have talked about the subject of music and memory a few times in class, on the October 9th lecture with the same title, as well as last week’s class on music and emotion. I enjoy critical discussion on this because I feel as though it is a subject that is accessible and easily relatable. Surely, as musicians ourselves, our relationship with music is above average and it is only natural that we have deep associations.

Early on in the podcast Dr. Janata touches on the similarities between memories triggered by the sense of hearing and the sense of smell. He says that there is a tight coupling between the two, that some of the same regions of the brain are activated. I found this very interesting; I often catch a whiff of something that sends me back to a moment many years ago, much like when I hear a familiar and meaningful song. When I thought about this I realized that for me, smells often trigger events or memories associated with my childhood and family - situational memories - while music will trigger more personal memories and feelings, like love, independence, and even past insecurities. This concept is something I wish to explore further. Do others have similar experiences?

As previously mentioned, I often get transported back in time through music. Honestly, any song from 1997 will immediately take me back to the summer when my mother stopped being a fulltime housewife and went back to the work force. That was the summer I gained independence, the summer I started my own cassette and occasional CD collection, and coincidentally, the summer I started going through puberty. We discussed this in class this week… Is it a coincidence? Are there certain stages in your life when music becomes more meaningful? Perhaps it just naturally lines up with the influential periods in our lives. Certainly, adolescence would qualify. Or is it that these periods in our lives seem influential because we are merely more impressionable – that these are simply the stages when we define our own personal taste.

I wanted to learn more about Dr. Janata’s research so I did some of my own. I hope to use this study as a basis for my own essay. Here are some websites I found:


Amanda Tosoff said...

Your blog post is fascinating! I have definitely had similar experiences with music, where visual and emotional memories are conjured up when hearing a song from my teen-hood. According to a podcast I heard called Music Therapy, Alzheimer's and Post-Traumatic Stress, the music that has the most impact on us is the music we listened to around the years of 15 to 23. When music elicits strong memories in me, the memories are usually from this time period. Gwen Stephanie's Spiderwebs and Oscar Peterson playing Autumn Leaves are a few songs that bring me back to being 15 again. I can also think of certain songs that bring me back even further in time - these are songs my mom used to play and sing when I was a kid, so I suppose the emotions around them are pretty strong. Did you find out anything more about how music does this? What is going on in the brain when familiar songs elicit emotions and memories in us?

Suzanne said...

I agree with Amanda - what a fascinating blog post! I similarly find that the memories associated with music that I listened to throughout my teenage years and early twenties can be particularly poignant. I also find that not only do certain songs ellicit certain vivid memories, but if those memories are of strong emotions, the music can bring those to the surface as well. I find it incredible that even if I'm feeling, for example, completely discouraged and sad, if a song associated with a happy memory starts playing on iTunes, it can turn my day around. I am also interested to know if you have found out anything else in regards to the similarities and differences between memories evoked by scent and those evoked by music. Personally, I have found that while memories evoked by music and scent can be equally as intense, the ones evoked by music tend to be more specific and situational, while the ones evoked by scent are often incredibly strong but vague. I hope I too can learn more about this topic. It is certainly interesting.

Katherine Napiwotzki said...

I too find it very interesting how quickly a certain song can conjure a specific memory. I often play certain songs that I know will put me in a better mood if I am feeling down. Thinking about these songs, I realize that most of the songs have a specific situational memory associated with them, and the ones that don’t bring back a specific memory, do remind me of people in my life, and, in general, the times I’ve spent with them. All of the songs remind me of people and usually times I have spent with friends. I think that must tie in to helping people who suffer from depression. If the music they listen to can remind them of people who they have a positive relationship with, music can serve as a healing power. This type of research must be difficult to put together since it can only come from the subjective reactions that people have to music. Dr. Janata’s research sounds very interesting. I would love to know more about how our reactions to a piece of music can be tracked in the brain. Thank you for sharing this article!