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Remember That Song?

Do you remember that top hit from your favorite 90s boy band that you listened to on your CD player in 4th grade? Now can you recall that song on the radio that you listened to last week while driving to Colby College on I-95? Chances are, you will remember every last word of that pop song from a decade ago, but you cannot remember anything about that song you heard very recently while driving past endless pine trees. It may seem counter intuitive that certain songs from the distant past are ingrained in memory much better than the latest hits. However, past research has shown that memory and emotion are closely linked, and memory can be enhanced when correlated with powerful emotions (Laird et al., 1982). Music can be an effective catalyst in eliciting strong emotion, and people use music as a way to derive emotional responses. For example, people listen to upbeat and lively music when they want to socialize at parties, and movies play sad, slow music in a minor key during tragic moments. To examine whether emotion can have an effect on the ability to remember songs, Stephanie M. Stalinski and E. Gleen Schellenberg, investigated whether “liking” a song is correlated with the ability to remember it at a later point in time.

In their paper “Listeners Remember Music They Like,” Stalinski and Schellenberg hypothesized that positive musical experiences would influence later recognition. It is difficult to conduct experiments on music and memory because everyone has differences in musical preference. For example, someone who likes country music may remember an excerpt better if it sounds like a country song. Therefore, the scientists conducted six experiments to rule out any confounding variables as a result of music preference and familiarity with songs.
In each experiment they gathered 48-86 undergraduate students with normal hearing and varying degrees of musical training to listen to short pieces of music which they had not previously heard. After a delay of either 10 minutes or 24 hours, participants had to rate each song along a continuum for “liking” and “recognition” (whether they had heard the piece previously). For each test they removed participants who had heard the music prior to the experiment so that they could isolate “liking” based only upon novel music. Each experiment isolated a different factor which could influence music preference and recognition, such as the complexity of the music, familiarity of genre, processing of lyrics, or recognition of music tested in the prior experiment.
In all experiments, subjects were able to recognize more musical pieces that they rated as favorable. This was true regardless of the time delay after the first listening, their ability to distinguish between actually “liking” or simply “recognizing” a piece, the similarity of the song to their favorite genres, the deep-level processing required to understand the lyrics, and previous exposure to the song in the same testing environment. This shows that memory for music is consistently and intimately tied with peoples’ emotions and attitudes towards a piece.
This study can help us to understand why we can easily remember our favorite songs from our youth, while we can forget more easily the neutral or unpleasant songs for which we show little regard. The experiments discussed in this paper are also helpful to realize why a good tune can become “stuck in your head” for hours. However, it does not explain why the same phenomenon can happen to songs that are strongly disliked. Future experiments could help to determine whether negative emotions can also have a strong effect on memory for music. Additional studies could also isolate how songs that we associate with certain memories can help in recall of past emotionally charged events. For now, the next time you are caught singing along to “Bye Bye Bye,” you can explain that your emotional attachment to N’Sync at the age of ten is responsible for your perfect memory of the lyrics today.

Laird, James D.; Waegner, John; Halal, Mark; Szegda, Martha. (1982). Remembering What You Feel: Effects of Emotion on Memory. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 42, 646-657.
Stalinski, S. M. & Schellenberg, E.G. (2013). Listeners Remember Music They Like. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition, 39, 700-716. doi:10.1037,a0029671

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  1. May 6th, 2013 at 14:54 | #1

    Great article! I’ve always been amazed with our ability to remember song lyrics. It would be interesting to see if the same results would be found for songs that people have a strong negative emotional connection to. Additionally, if further studies on the effect of preference were conducted on things like scene selection (as mentioned in your post), it would be worthwhile to compare those results to the ones in this study to see if song memory has a unique relation to preference and emotion.

  2. May 6th, 2013 at 23:25 | #2

    Interesting article! As you mentioned, there seems to be a correlation between time and song recall and I always like categorizing my favorite songs into time periods (i.e. summer 2009 throwback or prom 2010). I wonder if there is any difference in song recall if the song is associated with a single event (prom) versus a series of them (summer).

  3. May 8th, 2013 at 20:46 | #3

    I thought this was a very interesting topic. As stated above, I am too curious as to whether or not there is a difference in recall based on single, memorable events, compared to less memorable events that occur thoughout a summer. I would assume it would be the later, essentially a spacing “study” effect that might allow for more context. However, memorable events are remembered better so there is a case either way.

  4. May 10th, 2013 at 06:40 | #4

    I think Sam makes an interesting point – songs might be remembered so well because of advantages due to spacing and contextual variability – favorite or popular songs are likely to be heard in many different contexts or situations. Furthermore, if we are associating them with particular events, perhaps we are engaging in deeper processing by attaching meaning to them based on personal experiences.

  5. May 10th, 2013 at 10:50 | #5

    Cool study!! I am interested in knowing whether the genre of music makes the song more recognizable or remembered. Does the fact that a song is pop, country, rock, fast, or slow influence memory for lyrics? How about memory for songs that invoke strong emotions, such as a slow song that results in a sentimental response–like a song that reminds you of an ex-boyfriend? Can the negative memory of the breakup impact memory for lyrics? What about songs that you once liked, and then were played so much that you hated them?

  6. May 13th, 2013 at 20:21 | #6

    As Jen stated, “perhaps we are engaging in deeper processing by attaching meaning to them based on personal experiences.” If I am to observe my personal habits with remembering lyrics, I am positive that the songs that I remember most are ones that I listen to and they remind me of my own life. With every lyric, memories are brought back and I am deeply engaged in processing the lyrics. While a part of it does seem to be the favorability of the song, I definitely agree that a critical aspect of remembering is how much the lyrics spur memories and allow us to process the lyrics on a deeper level.

  7. May 16th, 2013 at 17:03 | #7

    I really enjoyed reading this as it is so relevant to our lives today and I am often surprised by the number of songs I still know all the lyrics too. This study also made me think about not only emotional attachment to songs and how it increases memory, but how songs can actually bring back emotions you felt at the time of listening. I know for me when I hear certain songs I have flashbacks to very specific moments driving in the car or at specific stages in my life and it can often bring back many of the emotions I felt then. I know this is not necessarily the same topic, but this article and post also made me think about the fact that listening to music while you study and listening to that music again before testing can help stimulate your memory of the material and improve test performance. I do not actually know if that is entirely true, but this made me wonder if maybe it works better when it is music that you like, or music that is familiar versus unfamiliar.

  8. May 17th, 2013 at 21:00 | #8

    I think it is really interesting that someone decided to do a study on this subject! It is something that happens so frequently to me and I am always so amazed when I can still recall the words of a song I haven’t heard for years. It really does make sense that the songs we remember are those that were our favorite or that we really liked. I also have found that I link music to certain memories, for example last semester I was abroad in Denmark and hearing the songs that I heard frequently then automatically bring me back to that time. It is interesting because I know that the sense of smell is known for triggering memory, but I wonder to what extent or comparatively how strong is music and the top-down processing that goes along with it tied to memory?

  9. May 18th, 2013 at 21:39 | #9

    There are many times when a song will come on, and I will be able to remember every word. When I think about it, I question myself “How can you remember that, this song is from probably 7th grade.” Because this is such a common phenomenon, I found this article very interesting. I had never considered the connection between emotion and music retention, but, after reading this post, it makes a lot of sense that I would remember something I enjoy significantly better than something I dislike. I think that that time during youth, when you first start listening to music actively, is a big time in a lot of kids’ childhoods. I wonder if the novelty of music and how significant our favorite songs are during that time influences our ability to remember those songs after such a long period of time or if it makes remembering those songs any easier. I think there definitely is a connection, because I think I no longer memorize songs nearly as easily as I used to. Really cool article on a really interesting topic.

  10. May 19th, 2013 at 22:02 | #10

    Recently I took MU111 which required us to be able to hear a song, and recognize it, then name the composer. From my personal “research” I can definetly say that liking a piece makes it so much easier to recall later. Some other factors that I found helpful in remembering the tunes was lyrics; normaly I would think that this is due to the emotional context of the words allowing for deeper processing, but most of the song I heard weren’t in english! Perhapse there is something intrinsically recognizable about voices. Much like faces I consider voices very unique; I wonder if there voice recognition is dominated by top down processing like faces.

  11. mjgiblin
    March 19th, 2014 at 17:31 | #11

    A quote in this article really resonated with me because it made me think of an experience I’ve had that relates to how music can affect people’s emotions. The quote “people use music as a way to derive emotional responses” resonated with me because it made me remember when a TV show played a clip of an alligator coming towards the screen, but played two different types of background music. The first was a scary, dark song that made me want to jump away from the TV! But the second song was a silly, upbeat song that made the alligator coming towards you much less scary. It was so interesting how this was the exact same clip of an alligator about to attack you, but the music affected your emotions greatly! This article was very interesting and explained how music can greatly influence emotional reactions.

  12. October 22nd, 2015 at 10:51 | #12

    Loved this article because I know multiple songs that that I have completely memorized because of the strong memories they are linked to. For example, my dad bought me my first CD, a Smashmouth ablum, and I can sing every word to Allstar with or without music (alone in the car or in the shower of course…). The emotional response hearing this song now is very happy. Thinking about my behavior when exposed to this song reminds me of the Cognitive-Affective Personality System Theory by Mischel and Shoda (1995). We went over this theory in my personality psychology class this week. Basically, people throughout their life develop different behavioral “triggers”, or what Mischel calls Cognitive-Affectiveness Units (CUAs), that result in various behaviors when exsposed to certain stimuli. It is interesting to see how, in the example of my experience with Smashmouth’s Allstar, I have developed positive CAUs overtime for this stimuli, and in return this triggers my positive behavioral response.

    Bringing this topic back to the article above; because I have such positive CAUs and behaviors associated with the song, my level of processing is very deep, further allowing me to know it by heart, even if I only hear it once every few months. Maybe this level of processing could also be true for songs or stimuli in which people have negative, or sad, CAUs because they elicit strong emotional behaviors.

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