Our memories are shaped by music—whether it’s that one song from TikTok that reminds you of the early days of COVID-19 quarantine or a throwback that your parent always played in the car, music has a powerful ability to hold more than just melodies and lyrics. This playlist is a curation of tunes that transport some University of Miami students back to the good ‘ole days.
Your first week at The U. Your first middle-school breakup. A loved one’s last breath. The soundtrack of our past, present and future—shaped by milestones and setbacks—is infinitely replayable. Time travel doesn’t exist yet, but the power of music and the human brain allows us to transport, hurt and heal.“
Music has a pretty astounding ability to take us back almost immediately to a certain person, place or time and elicit compelling feelings,” said Dr. Kimberly Sena Moore, a music therapist and associate professor at the University of Miami’s Frost School of Music. “It’s a phenomenon that continues throughout life.”
In a 1999 study, American psychologists Matthew Schulkind, Laura Hennis and David C. Rubin first traced the “significant positive correlation between emotion and [long-term, autobiographical] memory” through music. They conducted and analyzed the results through a series of listening and memory-triggering exercises on adults of all ages. Excerpts were found to stimulate a particularly high emotionality rating among older adults recognizing popular songs associated with their youth.
Memories of significant life periods and events often carry a heavier weight than others because nostalgia has the capability to supercharge memories. In other words, “the memories that we remember the strongest are the ones with an emotional tag,” said Moore. These chapters of life are synonymous with “discoveries of how we self-identify,” Moore said—and all the more shaped by music.
When soundscapes are thrown into the picture, soul-stirring experiences can be even stickier in both the emotional and memory systems of the mind. That is because sound can be retained consciously by explicit memory as well as automatically by implicit memory. Therefore, hearing the sonic backdrop stored with such potent experiences cues the brain to connect the dots, unlock information and induce pleasure or pain in response, according to a BBC article.
No one component of the brain simply presses play, however. The organ works “like an orchestra,” Moore detailed. “Each individual musician is important and plays a critical role, but it’s really the coordination of the different sections that creates the cohesive music we hear.” Similarly, in the limbic system, the amygdala (an almond-sized structure responsible for telling the body what’s emotionally important in the environment) is functionally connected to the hippocampus (which absorbs and processes newly-learned material) and the hypothalamus (which releases dopamine, the nervous system’s ultimate feel-good neurohormone).
The relationships between music, memory and emotion run deep, and today’s research efforts aim to unwrap their united therapeutic impact. Moore’s own patients with neurocognitive disorders like dementia and Alzheimer’s may have a limited understanding of their surroundings and a debilitated psychological network, but when playing or singing a song from their formative years, she’s often gifted with smiling faces.
So, although they can’t cure all wounds, blasts from the past activate and energize the human mind. As Moore underscored, “We capitalize on music’s power to evoke, extend and shift how we feel,” and self-reflection through music is an eternal human ritual.
What Makes You Beautiful
Tangled Up in Blue
Despacito Feat. Justin Bieber (Remix)
Luis Fonsi, Daddy Yankee
Iggy Azalea Feat. Charli XCX
Take Me Home, Country Roads
John DenverKingYears & Years
Cage the Elephant
I Gotta Feeling
Black Eyed Peas
Hey There Delilah
Plain White T’s
Call Me Maybe
Carly Rae Jepsen
Glad You Came
How Much I Feel
Want U Back
Young, Wild and Free (Feat. Bruno Mars)
Snoop Dogg, Wiz Khalifa
words_gianna milan. design & illustration_giselle spicer.
This article was published in Distraction’s summer 2021 print issue.