According to science, the reason why music brings back memories is that listening to it increases the likelihood that it will be encoded in memory along with details of a life event.
You’re walking down a busy street on your way to work. You pass a busker playing a song you haven’t heard in years. Now suddenly, instead of noticing all the goings on in the city around you, you’re mentally reliving the first time you heard the song. Hearing that piece of music takes you right back to where you were, who you were with and the feelings associated with that memory.
This experience – when music brings back memories of events, people and places from our past – is known as a music-evoked autobiographical memory. And it’s a common experience.
It often occurs as an involuntary memory. That is, we make no effort to try to recall such memories, they just come to mind spontaneously.
Research has recently begun to uncover why music appears to be such a good cue for invoking memories. First, music tends to accompany many distinctive life events, such as proms, graduations, weddings, and funerals, so it can play an important role in reconnecting us with these self-defining moments.
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Music also often captures our attention, due to the way it affects our minds, bodies, and emotions.
When music draws our attention, this increases the likelihood that it will be encoded in memory together with details of a life event. And this then means it is able to serve as an effective cue for remembering this event year later.
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