How music triggers memories

by | Dementia, Mental Health

Break-up anthems are testament to how music can trigger memories, and now research has proven just how powerful your favourite tunes can be. A recent study has found that people from different age groups recall more personal recollections from song than another strong memory jogger: food.

The study included 78 adults from the UK and the US, between the ages of 18-35 and 60-80. Participants kept a diary of memories triggered separately by music and food for a number of days. They noted how long they were exposed to either the music or food, what specific item triggered the memory, and how the memory made them feel. The study found that while food-related memories were mostly associated with eating or preparing a meal, music triggered memories in more diverse situations, such as studying, driving or even cleaning!

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The study suggests that music may be an effective memory trigger because it can evoke autobiographical memories through a diverse range of routes. For example, a song’s lyrics may remind someone of a similar situation from their life, even if the song was not heard during the original event. The researchers believe that the study’s findings provide new insights into why music may be a more effective trigger for personally valued memories than certain other everyday cues. The findings illustrate the power of music as an everyday memory cue, which can enhance wellbeing. The study also found that there were no differences in the number and involuntary nature of the memories evoked between the two age groups.

This suggests that music remains a key memory cue throughout our lives, even though some aspects of our memory may decline as we age, and links in with the growing body of research suggesting that music (and music therapy, especially in older people) may have benefits on our mental health and perhaps even our general wellbeing, with some smaller studies showing listening to familiar music helped to reduce depression and anxiety, decrease stress, and improve social connection.


I Markostamou, C Randall, L Kvavilashvili. Memory. 2023. Dissociations between directly and generatively retrieved autobiographical memories: evidence from ageing. Available from