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(Credit: Jason Rosewell)


Uncovering the fascinating science of music and memories

I hate the song ‘Red Red Wine’ to such an extent that if I was part of some sort of cinematic sci-fi thriller whereby I had to travel back in time to prevent a catastrophe of my choosing, I would leave the little Austrian watercolourist with the funny moustache well alone, and instead ensure that the atrocity men of UB40, frontman Duncan Campbell and his brother Ali, were never spawned into misery-inducing existence. Of course, it isn’t even necessarily the songs’ fault, granted it isn’t my cup of tea, but the reason I hate it is that during every low point of my life it has inexplicably been in earshot like some curse of the white man’s reggae. My life has been beleaguered by this bedevilling song and I can’t stand to listen to it for more than a second even in times when cataclysm seems unfathomably far away.

Fortunately, the obverse is also true and far more common. There are some songs that pop up from the universes great shuffled playlist and like a whippet out of sonic traps they transport you not only back to a memory, but they also immediately grasp an emotional change. It can be anything; three bars into ‘Moonlight Sonata’ and you’re back to the unlikely situation of vomiting 18 bottles of Mythos outside of a jerk chicken joint in Rhodes, a mere aural whiff of ‘Running Up That Hill’ and you’re reliving the unrivalled ecstasy of hurling a balled up pair of socks at the light switch from your bed and actually succeeding in turning the light off, or Bruce Springsteen’s ‘Tougher Than the Rest’ will pop up on Smooth Radio and take you back to the simple pleasure of kicking seven shades out of crocodile in Darwin, NT. What is actually going on here? Of course, music is brilliant but why is it so transportive and entwined with memory unlike anything else?

Far from just a fun thing to muse over, the impact of music and the answers to those questions have reverberating impacts on depression, dementia and therapy at large. Scientists have been interested in the link between music and memory for millennia, but in recent times the implications have gotten far more serious and really rather hopeful. 

In his novel Memory in Oral Traditions, David C. Rubin says memories and music have been entwined in culture for centuries. In fact, he postulates that Greek epic’s, such as The Iliad, survived the centuries by the use of poetic devices. It is almost impossible to remember the entire narrative of such a tale from one sitting, but if it is transposed into song and incantation the pertinent points stick and the story is woven into the oral tapestry of history. This is far from a stretch as the same principle is still self-evident today – it’s the same reason why we can recite lyrics within a few listens, but a news article of the same word count would be almost impossible. 

That cognizant sense of music and the rhythmic key to memory is all when and good, but it doesn’t explain why I regard the Campbell brothers as two of the worst living beings in history, scum, in fact, subhuman scum. There is a vivid emotional connection to our memories when induced by music as though certain songs transform a record collection into a home video repository, and that too is explainable. 

Back in December 2013, Amee Baird and Séverine Samson at the University of Newcastle in Australia used music in a groundbreaking study to help patients with severe brain injuries retrieve their memory. This study came off the back of research from the University of California that found when we listen to music, regions of the brain linked to autobiographical memories and emotion are engaged, forming pathways for the future. 

Petr Janata, who studied the potential of these pathways in helping to treat Alzheimer’s, remarked in his study: “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,” Janata said. “Now we can see the association between those two things—the music and the memories.”

This was further added to by the composer Robert Snyder who told Tiffany Jenkins of the BBC, “A large part of memory takes place in the unconscious mind. There are aspects of memory that are remembered implicitly, that is, outside of consciousness. Implicit memory systems involve different parts of the brain than explicit memory systems.” Explicit memory systems are damaged by conditions such as Alzheimer’s disease while implicit systems prove doggedly durable. Snyder goes on to say, “things that can affect us from outside of consciousness are often regarded as powerful.” In short, music accesses a memory pathway that is immediately evocative because of the fact emotional memories prove very durable. In some poetic sense, they are a road less travelled that evades the erosion of footfall, but always prove a very pleasant visit.

The only aspect that none of my research into the science behind it all has been able to answer is why sometimes songs strongly cough up seemingly innocuous memories from time to time. Perhaps this is merely indicative of the complex pictures of our lives that music helps to viscerally underscore. The outlook of music’s link to memories in that regard is rather a beautiful one. As researcher Cretien van Campen adds, “People worry a lot today about forgetting and the problems with memory. But the beauty is today we are beginning to help with remembering.”

So, Ali and Duncan Campbell of the bastardly UB40, if by some cat in hells chance you’re reading this, it is not your fault that I hate ‘Red Red Wine’ really, you are merely innocent pawns in the wrong part of my mind canyon and fuck you very much for that. For all the other glorious musical shortcuts to emotion, however, we are very thankful and the bottom line of the science behind it in layman’s terms is to reaffirm the transfigured alchemy of music. Its near-magical potential brings forth all the old Kurt Vonnegut quote, whether secularised or otherwise, “If I should ever die, God forbid, let this be my epitaph: ‘The only proof he needed for the existence of God was music’.”