Music’s Emotional Power Can Shape Memories—And Your Perception Of Time

16:03 minutes

A cubist painting of a guitar blending in with the head of a person with long hair.
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It can be hard to avoid the chime of classic Christmas songs at this time of year. Certain songs may even bring up potent memories, transporting a person to a specific moment in the past, like an afternoon baking cookies as a child, or warming up after playing in the snow.

Music, when coupled with emotion, has the ability to create powerful memories. And listening to songs associated with specific memories can almost feel like going back in time.

Better understanding how this mechanism works is the work of Assistant Professor Dr. David Clewett and PhD candidate Mason McClay, both in UCLA’s cognitive psychology department. They talk with SciFri producer Kathleen Davis about how this method could be used to improve therapies for PTSD and other memory disorders.

From Our Inbox: What Are Your Music Memories?

“When I was five, I sang ‘Joyful, Joyful, We Adore Thee’ (ODE TO JOY) in an empty sanctuary with great acoustics and experienced the awe of harmonics for the first time. 50 years later I still get goosebumps when I sing that hymn (or tune).” —Rev. Dr. Ruth Shaver, via Twitter

“’She’s Some Kind of Wonderful’ by Huey Lewis—my husband sang that to me as a surprise at our wedding reception. As a musician, I have loads of songs associated with so many people/events in my life. Hard to name them all!” —Stephanie, via email

“The song that makes me tear up is Israel Kamakawiwoʻole’s version of ‘What a Wonderful World.’ The first time I heard that version was at the end of a very sad episode of ‘Cold Case.’ Any time that song plays I cry. Yet my best friend always associates the song with happy thoughts.” —Griffin, via Twitter

Further Reading

Segment Guests

David Clewett

Dr. David Clewett is an assistant professor of Cognitive Psychology at UCLA in Los Angeles, California.

Mason McClay

Mason McClay is a PhD Candidate at UCLA in Los Angeles, California.

Segment Transcript

CHARLES BERGQUIST: This is Science Friday. I’m Charles Bergquist.

KATHLEEN DAVIS: And I’m Kathleen Davis. I am one of those people who likes to listen to Christmas music during the holidays. It’s not that I think that those songs are any better than the music that I listen to throughout the rest of the year. It’s more that holiday songs transport me back to when I was a kid. And that music is really tied up in happy memories for me of decorating the Christmas tree, baking cookies, and warming up after playing in the snow.

By listening to those songs, it is almost like being transported back into time. Music has this incredible emotional ability. It lets us go back to a memory that’s been hidden away deep inside our brains. So what is the science behind that?

My next guests study how music affects our memories and our emotions. And this new information could help music therapy work better for people with PTSD. So joining me now are Dr. David Clewett, assistant professor of cognitive psychology at UCLA in Los Angeles, and Mason McClay, PhD candidate in cognitive psychology also at UCLA. Thank you both so much for joining me.

DAVID CLEWETT: Thanks Kathleen.

MASON MCCLAY: Thank you.

KATHLEEN DAVIS: So David, let’s start generally by talking about how we make memories. So what is the process that’s going on in our brains?

DAVID CLEWETT: Yeah. So even though we’re encountering this continuous stream of information, when we look back on our experiences, we tend to remember them as these discrete episodes or events. So our memories are organized more like chapters in a story rather than some boundless text. And so what we’ve been finding in our lab is that there’s this push and pull in terms of the context that people are experiencing. So whether you remain in the same space for a period of time or cross into a new context, that can elicit what we call segmentation or the formation of these distinct episodes in your long-term memory.

KATHLEEN DAVIS: And so Mason, how does music play into memory making?

MASON MCCLAY: Yeah, a great question. So as Dave mentioned, this event segmentation process has mainly been investigated by using perceptual or external contextual changes in our environment. But we are actually really interested in how emotional change might also be a part of this really rich episodic memory formation process. So we thought about using music as a way to push and pull or push around different emotional states so that we could test whether or not the change in emotion might also facilitate the episodic encoding or the segmentation of memories.

KATHLEEN DAVIS: So walk me through this study that you did. Mason, what were you actually trying to learn here?

MASON MCCLAY: Yeah, great question. So in this study, we actually worked with composers to write original pieces of music. And the reason why we did this is because we wanted to try to elicit different emotional states that changed over time. And so what participants did is they listened to this rich music while looking at different images. And then we tested their memories for the images, but we didn’t just ask them whether or not they remembered an image. We asked them how much time they thought passed between pairs of images.

And what we were interested in looking at is how people separate these images and memory. So what we saw is that if images spanned an intense emotional change elicited by the music, then their memory actually seemed to dilate. So they remembered more time passing compared to images that stayed within one emotional event.

KATHLEEN DAVIS: OK, so let’s take a listen to one of the music cues that you played for people. And I want our listeners to really pay attention to the change that’s going to happen about halfway through and how it makes them feel.



OK, so let’s talk about that music because, at first, it’s pretty triumphant and joyous. And then it gets really scary. Is that change that I noticed, that shift in emotion, what you were looking at as being important in forming memories?

DAVID CLEWETT: Exactly. So your emotions are ebbing and flowing over time. And that transition between one state of intense feelings or negativity to something perhaps slightly more positive is good for the formation of new memories. We know this promotes new encoding. What you’re essentially doing is crossing through an emotional doorway into an entirely new event.

KATHLEEN DAVIS: So did you find that your participants were forming memories based on sitting in a chair, and listening to this music, and looking at pictures?

MASON MCCLAY: Yeah. Yeah. So not only did we find that our participants tended to have a temporal dilation of images that spanned an emotional change, what’s really interesting is that we actually tested a day later how well they remembered each image. And what we found is that when an image coincided with a rich emotional change, then they remembered that image better. And we also found that participants remembered the temporal location of those images that coincided with a change better as well. And the rich emotional change seemed to be better for that memory process than just a mere perceptual change of the music itself.

KATHLEEN DAVIS: Mason, did you find that people’s memory making was different based on if that music change was maybe from sad to happy or happy to sad or anxiety inducing? Were there different genres of this music that worked better?

MASON MCCLAY: Yeah, that’s a great question, and that was one of our really cool findings, I think, is we actually found that the segmentation process was strongest when the emotional state was going from a more neutral state, like calm, to a more negative state, like an anxious clip. But if it was becoming less negative, so going from maybe anxious to sad or anxious to calm, memory actually tended to integrate. And what I mean by that is people remembered time as actually being more compressed when it was going from more negative to less negative.

KATHLEEN DAVIS: It’s so amazing to me that people can glean the same emotions from music person by person. That just seems like such an amazing part of this as well.

DAVID CLEWETT: Yeah, absolutely. And I just wanted to mention too that we developed a new tool for this experiment that we call the emotion compass, which is basically a tool that measures people’s emotions on two dimensions, so how pleasant the music made them feel or how anxious or aroused. And what’s great about this tool is we’re able to collect continuous measures of emotions from moment to moment to really capture how they’re fluctuating across time. And even though we design the musical segments to evoke categorical emotions, like joyous or anxious, we’re actually letting their ratings tell us how they were feeling.

So while a sad song might actually be very pleasurable for one person, it could induce negativity in another person. So we didn’t want to make assumptions about what people were feeling.

KATHLEEN DAVIS: What is it about music that makes it such a powerful tool for molding memories?

MASON MCCLAY: So we have a few different metaphors we play around with. But one of them is music is a very rich context. As Dave mentioned, it’s highly structured. It’s also often formed in a narrative format, so like the music that you played earlier, Kathleen, it might go from a really joyous segment to a more anxious segment. It’s almost like telling a story, like a character had something really good happen to them, and then all of a sudden, something shifts.

So in that way, these changes almost act like putting things into storage for us. We have this joy event. Then we have this sad event. But what’s kind of cool is this narrative component allows us to take these different events and then put them together so that we can more easily tell a story across time.

KATHLEEN DAVIS: Can this explain, Mason, why, say, going to a concert, for example, can create such lasting memories?

MASON MCCLAY: Yeah, I think so. So this study was people just alone at home on their computers. But I think that going to a concert, there’s a very social component to that that I think probably helps drive these emotional fluctuations because not only are you experiencing the vividness of live music. But you’re also able to see and perceive your favorite bands while they’re playing this music. You’re able to share that experience with the people around you. So I think all of these different elements really amplify the emotional context and also the change across maybe within a song or across songs and make that just a very vivid memory for you.

DAVID CLEWETT: Another strong example of this, too, is when you think about the score to a movie. The music itself and the emotions they evoke is a storyteller. That’s something that helps you remember these really exciting moments or sad movie moments in a film.

KATHLEEN DAVIS: Yeah, that’s a great point. So there have been studies in the past that show that in patients with dementia, or Alzheimer’s, or other memory conditions, music can trigger old memories and even boost mood. That is so incredible to me. Is that just another piece of this puzzle into why music and memory is so powerful?

DAVID CLEWETT: Yeah. Well, we know music has a very special place in memory but so does emotion. So those moods that music tends to induce serve as a really strong memory cue. So we’re attaching this really vivid information to a target piece of a memory. So when you listen to that music later on, it could reinstate those same emotions, and that could be a pathway to unlocking these memories that would otherwise be dormant.

KATHLEEN DAVIS: Could either of you see music therapy, maybe something similar to this study that you’ve done recently, as a way to treat conditions that are tied to memory? I’m thinking like PTSD or something, David.

DAVID CLEWETT: Yeah, that’s a great question. So PTSD is characterized by highly disorganized and fragmented memories. So people who experience intense trauma often have trouble recalling the temporal order of events and making sense of what happened to them. So really, the goal of potential therapies is to try to reintegrate those memories and put the pieces back together so that people can comprehend a negative event that happened to them and then embed it within a broader context, such as the story of their life. So we’re hopeful that maybe music by eliciting positive emotions or at least moving people from a very negative state to a more neutral state can help recontextualize their memories and form these narratives that help them understand what happened and begin to heal.

KATHLEEN DAVIS: I have had moments where I’m listening to live music. And I’m having a great time. And it almost feels like time slows down. Is that a real phenomenon, Mason? Does this happen to other people?

MASON MCCLAY: Yeah, so actually there’s a really interesting literature on time perception and emotion that seems to be a little different from the literature on temporal memory and emotion. So what’s kind of interesting– you know the classical idiom of “time flies when you’re having fun.” So it seems like when you’re in a really aroused and positive state, time actually seems to speed up. And what’s also kind of funny is that when you’re bored and there’s not much going on, time seems to be really slow.

But that’s in the moment. So that’s what we call perceived time or perspective time. But what’s cool is that if you look back on those memories, the memories that are more rich in emotion, so l concert you had a ton of fun at, feels longer. So in the moment, if you try to really put yourself back in that moment, it might have felt really fast. But it’s your memory of the fun concert that feels long.

KATHLEEN DAVIS: Is it possible that other types of art may affect memory in a similar way like, I don’t know, looking at a beautiful painting or something, David? Is that something that’s been explored?

DAVID CLEWETT: That’s a really great question. If something is capable of inducing emotions, then those emotions are going to ripple across time and change. And that’s going to color the way you process information as time unfolds. So I think it makes sense that as you navigate, say, through a museum and you’re experiencing these different pieces of artwork that evoke different emotions, you may be better able to integrate that experience together if they’re evoking something very positive and arousing.

KATHLEEN DAVIS: What is next for your research into this? What would you really love to learn in the future, David?

DAVID CLEWETT: Yeah. So there’s this idea in emotion research that people who lack emotional flexibility, so an inability to mount an appropriate emotional response to a situation, often exhibit symptoms of depression or PTSD. So we’re really interested in assessing using our compass tool how people navigate their emotional landscapes and how effectively they transition between these different emotional states. We suspect that that would be a really good measure of whether people are amenable to treatment and also to assess whether they may have depression or PTSD. So we’re really excited to use this tool in new ways.

KATHLEEN DAVIS: Mason, what about you? What would you love to be able to learn next about this?

MASON MCCLAY: Yeah, so we’re actually in the middle of collecting data for that emotion compass project right now. It’s pretty exciting. We have this new mobile app that we’re using the same music, and people are just tracking their emotions on their phone.

What’s kind of cool about it is emotional flexibility seems to be potentially symptomatic of depression or PTSD. But it also as we found in our study is important for the segmentation integration process. So people who have maybe worse emotional flexibility, maybe don’t transition across emotional states as well, might also show these deficits and more episodic memory. So that’s something I’m really interested in following up on.

KATHLEEN DAVIS: That’s all the time that we have for now. I would like to thank my guests, Dr. David Clewett, assistant professor of cognitive psychology at UCLA in Los Angeles, and Mason McClay, PhD candidate in cognitive psychology also at UCLA. Thank you both so much for joining me today.

DAVID CLEWETT: Thanks, Kathleen.

MASON MCCLAY: Thank you.

KATHLEEN DAVIS: And listeners, we want to hear from you. Is there a song that triggers a specific memory for you? Let us know on your preferred social media site. Our handle is always @SciFri.

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Kathleen Davis is a producer at Science Friday, which means she spends the week brainstorming, researching, and writing, typically in that order. She’s a big fan of stories related to strange animal facts and dystopian technology.

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As Science Friday’s director and senior producer, Charles Bergquist channels the chaos of a live production studio into something sounding like a radio program. Favorite topics include planetary sciences, chemistry, materials, and shiny things with blinking lights.

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