Familiar songs act as strong memory cues, K-State researcher finds

05/12/05

MANHATTAN, KAN. -- Memories associated with music are strong. So strong that even the mere mention of a song's title or a glimpse of the album cover can bring the recollections of a time or place flooding back.

That's the word from Elizabeth Cady, a doctoral student in psychology at Kansas State University. Cady will present her research, "Autobiographical Memories Cued by Popular Music," at the upcoming American Psychological Society meeting, May 26-29, in Los Angeles, Calif.

For this project, Cady had 124 participants of about the same age choose from a list the song that elicited the strongest positive memory. They then ranked how vivid this memory was. Participants were divided into four groups -- those who just saw the name of the song, those who got to see the lyrics, those who viewed an album cover and/or picture of the artist, and a group who got to hear one minute of the song.

Cady wondered whether hearing the song would make the memories more vivid. Her findings: The memories were extremely clear, whether or not participants heard the song or saw only the lyrics, a photo or the title.

"It was a very easy task," Cady said of choosing a song from the list. Of the 124 participants, who were asked to choose one song each from lists of songs popular when they were in early childhood, grade school, middle school, high school and college (620 total questionnaires), only four were not filled out.

"Music is a big cue," Cady said. She said when participants, whose average age was 19, were asked if they could hear the song in their head, the response was the same whether they had heard the song during the study or not.

Cady said her findings show how pervasive the mass media is -- all of the songs were popular music. Many of the memories participants shared were even similar to Cady's own memories related to songs. Most of the memories participants indicated were for events or people, Cady said.

She said her findings also might be interesting as research grows to understand autobiographical memory. As people become more interested in finding out what causes memory loss and how to stop it, looking to music might become useful since it's such a strong cue.

"It's interesting to look at autobiographical memory," Cady said. "The more we know about it is important."

Cady picked the songs to include on the lists through a pilot study. For that survey, she had people think of a song on their own and give a memory associated with the tune. Cady used the songs most cited from this preliminary study.

Source: Eurekalert & others

Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 21 Feb 2009
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