Musical Cues: How Tunes May Yield Greater Positive Memories Than Words or Sounds

Sooraj Shah ’24

Figure 1: Regardless of positive or negative associations made, music evoked greater positive memories from participants.

When one hears a favorite piece of music or sees an old photograph, he or she is reminded of the time and place when the song or event was first heard or experienced. This recognition allows an individual to relive the moment, regardless of the level of  joyousness of the occasion. The extent to which that song or photograph evokes a memory is not yet understood. However, a novel study led by Dr. Kelly Jakubowski, a professor in the Department of Music at Durham University in the United Kingdom, investigated the extent to which music evoked autobiographical memories in comparison to other methods of evoking memories, such as photographs or environmental ambiance. 

To test the effect of unfamiliar music on autobiographical memory accounts, participants over the age of 18 who were fluent in English were tested across four different conditions. In the first two experiments, composed of 114 and 100 individuals, respectively, the effect of music on autobiographical memory recall was tested alongside the effect of sound. Participants pressed a button on the screen when they recalled a memory after hearing the music or environmental sound. The specific memory was then explained in a questionnaire. Music was selected from either a film or various genres for experiments one and two, respectively. To further establish a comparison between music, sound, and word cues, additional individuals were recruited to participate in experiments three and four, wherein music was tested alongside either concrete or abstract words. The same questionnaire method from experiments one and two was used as in experiments three and four. 

Total results showed about 50% of the variables evoked memories in participants. From experiment one, researchers found that sound cues evoked more vivid and social memories than music cues. However, negatively associated music showed more positive memories than negative sounds. The data from experiment two showed both music and sound evoking similar responses. From experiment three, researchers found that music evoked more descriptive and important memories; however, word cues received for quicker response times. Lastly, data from experiment four found that word cues elicited more vivid responses than music. Upon analysis of these results, the researchers concluded that music evoked less responses than sound and word cues, but these memories noted from music were very vivid and detailed in comparison. Additionally, negatively associated music evoked greater positive memories than when negative words or sounds were exposed to the participants. 

The use of music for therapeutic use is heavily supported by this study, as even music that is perceived to be negative continues to show positive memories. In a therapy setting, especially when working with patients who may have a negative mindset, the use of music may be a beneficial tool to help ease the patient into confronting their own stories. Future research will focus on fine-tuning the use of music to help people see past memories as positive rather than negative. 

Works Cited

  1.  K. Jakubowski, T. Eerola, Music evokes fewer but more positive autobiographical memories than emotionally matched sound and word cues. Journal of Applied Research in Memory and Cognition, 1-18 (2021). doi:
  2. Image Retrieved from:

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