Home > Memory > “We All Have a Song That’s Somehow Stamped Our Lives”: Kenny Chesney Preaches the Truth

“We All Have a Song That’s Somehow Stamped Our Lives”: Kenny Chesney Preaches the Truth


Anyone who listens to country music will undoubtedly know and love Kenny Chesney’s song “I Go Back,” in which he sings about certain songs that remind him of different memories throughout his life. He croons about how “Jack and Diane” brings back vivid memories of his adolescence such as football and his first love, and how “Keep on Rockin Me Baby,” reminds him of trying to impress girls at bars in college. When listening to this song, you can’t help but think of your own songs that have “somehow stamped your life.” Maybe every time you hear that NSYNC song, you’re brought back to awkward middle school dances. Maybe “Don’t Want to Miss a Thing,” makes you smile at memories of your first boyfriend. Maybe, like Chesney, a country song brings you back to your summer high school days. In fact, for me, “I Go Back” itself brings back vivid memories of driving through back roads in a Jeep with my friends. One thing is for certain: songs have a significant power to bring back life memories. This leads us to wonder: What types of memories exactly do they bring back?

In a recent study, Janata, Tomic, and Rakowski tested several songs for their capacity to trigger life memories, or episodic memories. Episodic memories are known as recollections of events that took place at specific places and times in the past. This differs from that of semantic memory, which is memory for specific facts. For example, episodic memory is remembering that you had toast for breakfast today, whereas semantic memory is knowing that toast is a breakfast food. In this study, researches paid attention to specific types of episodic memories known as autobiographical memories, which are memories of your own life. To try to test which songs brought participants down memory lane, the researchers selected songs from Billboard Top 100 songs from the years that the participant would have been 7-19 years of age. Since these were college students in 2007, songs included ones like “Bye Bye Bye” by ‘N SYNC, “Pieces of Me” by Ashlee Simpson, “Forever and For Always” by Shania Twain, and many more. Participants were played 30 second clips of each song, and following each excerpt were asked questions about how familiar the song was and whether it triggered a memory. If the song evoked a memory, they were then asked how long ago they last heard the song, the content of the memory (whether it was reminiscent of a person, period, place or event), whether the song evoked an emotional reaction, and what that emotion was if so. Participants were also asked to elaborate on the memories by writing a few sentences on the who, what, when, and where of the memory.

Results showed that of the songs that were familiar to participants, over 50% triggered some sort of autobiographical memory. This in itself shows how powerful music truly is in eliciting memories. Have you ever had a song that you couldn’t listen to without thinking immediately of your best friend from high school? About 40% of songs that brought back memories elicited memories of a specific person. These people were most commonly identified as friends, closely followed by significant others. These results make sense, as our adolescence is typically marked by the people we spent it with. Who doesn’t look back on their youth and think of their friends or their first boyfriend or girlfriend?

Of all the participants, 83% identified at least one song with a memory of a person. Whereas memories of specific people were the most common, participants tended to provide a less specific details in their three to four sentence description of the memory. That is to say, most participants could not provide a specific instance that the song elicited a memory of, but rather just said, “the song really reminded me of so-and-so.” The most detailed memory descriptions came more from memories of specific events or time periods, such as a detailed description of junior prom, or a detailed description of how life used to be when working at the Tasty Freeze over the summer.

In the detailed responses to memory that participants gave, researchers sorted the words used into different categories in order to try to figure out what exactly these memories were typically about. The highest categories represented were social (friends), leisure (free time), and occupation (jobs or schooling). Social and leisure words were typically associated with song-triggered memories of events or people. This makes sense, as a lot of our social and leisure time can be traced to specific people we spent it with, or of specific things we did. Do you ever find yourself lumping your experiences together into time periods when you had a specific job, for example, saying things like “That happened back when I was still working my old job at the company”? The two are often coupled together, and the study clearly indicates so, as occupation words were most associated with lifetime periods.

In terms of the words themselves, “school,” and “friends,” were used the most frequently, which can be expected, as both are a huge part of adolescence. This was followed closely by “dancing,” which clearly relates to memories that are often associated with music. Do you feel like a lot of songs bring back memories of car rides? You’re not alone, as interestingly the words “car” or “driving” were used 4th most frequently.

As can be expected, the songs that participants rated as eliciting the most emotion were also the songs that they provided the most detail about in their descriptions. Interestingly, the emotions that participants most identified songs with were “happy,” “youthful,” and “nostalgic,” suggesting that songs typically tend to bring back more pleasant memories of younger days.  Strong emotions often include strong negative emotions such as sadness or anger, but this does not seem to be the case for song-triggered memories.

In summary, songs have a great potential to bring back memories of places, things, and especially people. In theory, over half of the songs that you know, can bring you back to some sort of autobiographical memory, and, happily, almost every one is a good memory. So take a moment to thank your brain and your favorite tunes for sending you for a trip down golden memory lane.


Janata, P., Tomic, S., and Rakowski, S. (2007). Characterisation of music-evoked autobiographical memories. Memory, 15, 845-860.

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  1. April 28th, 2013 at 15:31 | #1

    The part about the songs rated as eliciting the most emotion being the songs that led to the most detail in descriptions of memory reminded me of how we learned about flashbulb memories being highly emotional and vivid, yet not actually anymore accurate than an average memory. This makes me wonder how accurate the memory descriptions the participants gave in this study were. Who knows, maybe songs increase the accuracy of memory?

  2. April 28th, 2013 at 16:18 | #2

    It would be an interesting follow up study! The authors of the study actually mentioned in their discussion that they did not try to monitor the accuracy of the memories in any way (they simply looked to see if the songs provided a trigger), and that they were interested in discovering whether they were actually accurate or not.

  3. April 28th, 2013 at 17:03 | #3

    I found this research to be incredibly relatable and fun to read about. I certainly have had the experience of hearing a song and being reminded of something from my past, whether it be a specific person or event. I feel like music is a large part of our lives, and I am not surprised that over 50% of the songs heard by the participants were associated with an autobiographical memory. Songs are often used to convey emotions, and as mentioned, songs eliciting the most emotion were songs that participants described in most detail. I think this research holds implications for the impact of emotion on memory as well. Further, I would be interested in exploring what instances song-triggered memories would not be positive, if any. In addition, though songs may trigger more positive memories, how might associations of an ex-boyfriend, for example, change the meaning of the song, such that hearing it causes an individual to become sad or regretful?

  4. April 30th, 2013 at 11:50 | #4

    I thought this study was pretty cool, since it relates to everyone who listens to music. I listen to music all the time, but rarely do I think to reflect on the memories connected to each song. The finding that 50% of songs are associated with an autobiographical memory was surprising. The study talked about how songs bring back happy memories, but I would be interested in reading a follow up study on the memories triggered by sadder songs.

  5. xzhao
    May 15th, 2013 at 16:53 | #5

    I found this very relatable as well and had similar questions to Ariel, it would be really interesting to look at the connections between emotion and memory and the differences in positive versus negative emotions. It’d also be interesting to look into if songs are as good as invoking memories as, say, smells or tastes.

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